During Nickel Creek's seven-year hiatus, members Sean Watkins, Sarah Watkins and Chris Thile each took divergent solo paths from their well-known and loved bluegrass sound.
Each was moderately successful. Sean Watkins formed the duo Fiction Family with Switchfoot's lead singer, Jon Foreman. Thile gained acclaim with his Punch Brothers and Goat Rodeo projects. And Sarah Watkins has enjoyed the past seven years working as a solo artist and as part of the group Works Projects Administration, of which her brother, Sean, is also a member.
So when Nickel Creek announced earlier this year the band planned to regroup and release a new album for their 25th anniversary, fans were ecstatic, yet surprised. What would the new Nickel Creek sound like?
Nickel Creek formed in 1989 when Thile, mandolinist, and Sarah Watkins, fiddler, were just 7 years old and Sean Watkins, guitarist, was 12. From there, they toured the U.S. and released three successful albums over an 18-year period with a signature "New Grass" sound that put them in a category with legends such as Alison Krauss and Béla Fleck.
All of this is important to keep in mind when listening to Nickel Creek's newest compilation, "A Dotted Line," as the album strays noticeably from the group's traditional sound, instead serving as a melting pot that resonates with what Thile and the Watkins siblings have been individually working on since the split.
Apart from the covers of Mother Mother's "Hayloft" and Sam Phillips' "Where is Love Now," every tune on the 38-minute record was written and recorded by one or all of the Nickel Creek trio. This fact is surprising, simply because each song is dramatically different in tone, musicality and overall sound, with the only clear similarities being the group's signature exquisite musicianship, harmonies and soft vocals.
The album opener, "Rest of My Life," is a refreshing, bluesy-folk tune reminiscent of anything by Ray LaMontagne. The only song even slightly similar is the upbeat, head-banging tune, "You Don't Know What's Going On," in which much of Thile's Punch Brothers rock influence is apparent.
For the bluegrass-loving listener, the song "21st of May," unsurprisingly written by Sean Watkins, carries a folksy, Southern feel that is well accompanied by the instrumental bluegrass tunes "Elsie," written by Thile, and "Elephant in the Corn," in which the trio meticulously exhibit their individual virtuosities.
Most unexpected, however, are the handful of indie-like, experimental tunes the album features. With Sarah Watkins on vocals, the album's first single, "Destination," can be coined only as "Nickel Creek Indie." It is quickly complemented by the accelerated and startling grass roots cover of "Hayloft," a tune that would surprise even the newest of listeners.
Needless to say, "A Dotted Line" knows no boundaries. Its sound is a clear anthology of the distinct influences brought by each of Nickel Creek's three mature musicians. The album does not give old fans newer versions of traditional tunes, but reinvents the beloved group through a variety of experimental and bold ideas that, appropriately, walk the genre lines.
Nickel Creek's seven-year hiatus was obviously well spent, but it's good to have them back.