Album of the Week #16 – Nickel Creek’s This Side

This Side - Nickel CreekThe other day I was listening to some music by one of the most successful acoustic groups of our time, Nickel Creek. I got to looking at some dates, and noticed that, possibly their most successful album, This Side, celebrates it’s tenth anniversary this year. That makes for a prime time to make it my choice for Album of the Week.

This California trio serve as poster children for the word prodigy. Playing their first gig when they were in their pre-teens, the entire bluegrass community turned their ears toward this remarkable bunch of youngsters, and held them there till the band began its indefinite hiatus in 2007.

This Side marked a turning point for the band. In addition to breaking barriers for the band creatively, the album broke many barriers which many successful bands rooted in bluegrass never cross. The album peaked at #1 on Billboard Bluegrass, #1 on Billboard Independent, #2 on Billboard Country, and #18 on the Billboard Hot 200. It was also certified gold and won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. It even made Rolling Stone’s Best of 2002 list. These are accolades which very few bluegrass artists ever achieve (to my chagrin).

Things start out with a rousing instrumental, Smoothie Song, which showcases just how extraordinary Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins, and Chris Thile are when it comes to picking. All three shine brightly on this tune. This catchy little number is sure to demand your attention.

 

One aspect of this album which makes it stand out from previous albums is the group’s ability to transform pop numbers into bluegrass-friendly material. Nickel Creek took the song Spit On A Stranger by alternative rockers Pavement, and turned it into a number that fit what the band did wonderfully. TRADITIONALIST ALERT: This song DOES include electric instruments. Spit On A Stranger is one of the more “out of the box” numbers on the album, but it is an addictive track if you keep an open mind.

Nickel Creek also covered folk artist, Carrie Newcomer’s song I Should’ve Known Better on This Side, with Sara Watkins delivering the vocals beautifully on this slower bluesy number.

One of the oldest songs in any genre is House Carpenter (also called The Daemon Lover). The ballad’s roots can be traced across the sea to England, and tells the tale of a sailor returning from a long absence to find his former lover married to a carpenter, and raising his son. The sailor convinces the woman to leave her husband and child and sail away with him, where the fates dole out justice. They meet their end at the bottom of the sea.

There are several different versions of the song, some of which explicitly portray the sailor as Satan, but this more common story-line will be familiar to American listeners. Versions have been recorded by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Jean Ritchie, as well as by bluegrass artists like Tim O’Brien, Doc Watson, David Grisman, and Tony Rice. Nickel Creek does a beautiful rendition of the song, and it is one of my favorite cuts on the album.

House Carpenter is one I like to feature during the “Pete and Repeat” segment on my radio program, Bending The Strings. In this segment, I feature the same song done by different artists, in different ways. It is a great way to compare and contrast the sounds of yesterday and today. Playing Nickel Creek’s version of House Carpenter next to the Tony Rice or Doc Watson cuts, is a worth the time, and something I highly recommend.

I really enjoy the fact that a progressive powerhouse like Nickel Creek chose to include such a traditional number on This Side. It proves to the naysayers that modern bands aren’t out to destroy the ways of the past, but to expand them. This might not always be the case, but bands that can bridge the gap between tradition and progression are bound to leave a mark.

Another stand out tune here is Hanging By A Thread. If you didn’t know that Alison Krauss produced this album, you might be able to guess so after hearing this track. It sounds like a song AKUS easily could have done. (Alison, if you’re reading this, you got the idea from me, and I expect credit in the liner notes.) This song is beautifully heart-wrenching, and reminiscent of one of the band’s most well-known songs, When You Come Back Down, from their self-titled album. The song is actually quite simple, perhaps one reason it stands out.

The band’s biggest hit from This Side is its title track. Written and sung by Sean Watkins, it peaked at #56 on Billboard Hot Country Songs. The song deals with going through hard times and transition in life, and is a very fitting title track for the project. One of the lines says “only the curious have something to find,” and that epitomizes this album and Nickel Creek’s artistic adventure. By expanding their horizons while maintaing true to who they are as musicians, they found immense success – of the sort most bluegrass artists can only dream of finding.

This Side is not full-fledged bluegrass, and there’s no reason to act like it is. I’m sure Sara, Sean, and Chris would say the same thing. However, this album is definitely bluegrass-friendly and worth a listen.

For thousands across the world, it may the only bluegrass-influenced CD in their collection. That’s important, and as a bluegrass community, we should be both comforted and excited about that fact. We should work on drawing those listeners into the fold instead of being focused on the fact that it doesn’t have a banjo, and there isn’t a Stanley cover on the project. Apparently they did something right, because they transcended bluegrass and became one of the most popular acoustic music acts in the world.

Since taking their indefinite hiatus in 2007, the former members of Nickel Creek have still been heavily involved in music. Sara Watkins has chosen to pursue a solo career, while Sean Watkins has been working with Fiction Family and Works Progress Administration.

Chris Thile has been involved in many endeavors including his own progressive bluegrass band, The Punch Brothers (whose new album, Who’s Feeling Young Now? is outstanding if you’re looking for a break from the norm). He and guitarist Michael Daves released a mando/guitar duet bluegrass project which was nominated for a Grammy, and Thile’s collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, and Edgar Meyer, The Goat Rodeo Sessions, has been one of the most talked about albums in years.

All three of Nickel Creek’s members have been making stellar music, however, I don’t think I’m the only one who is anxiously awaiting the press release saying “The Wait Is OVER! Nickel Creek has returned!”

Nickel Creek’s This Side was released on Sugar Hill (SH-3941-CD) and can be purchased through the Classic Country Connection and County Sales. The album can also be purchased digitally through iTunes and Amazon Music. Beginning last year, Sugar Hill has released all of Nickel Creek’s albums for the label, (Nickel Creek, This Side, and Why Should The Fire Die?) on vinyl.

I hope you enjoy one of the most successful acoustic albums of all time.

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About the Author

Daniel Mullins

Daniel is from southwestern Ohio and has been around bluegrass his entire life. He manages the Classic Country Connection, a music store in southern Ohio which specializes in bluegrass, classic country, gospel, and Americana music. He is the host of the Bending The Strings radio program, which plays a variety of bluegrass, newgrass, and Americana music. He also maintains the website for Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers. photo by LuAnn Adams