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NICKEL CREEK (2000)
Nickel Creek - Click to view! Growing up and living in southeast Texas for 20 years has made me realize that I cannot deny my southern roots, no matter how hard I try. Especially since I'm the world's foremost user of the word "ya'll." That's why I was hooked from the instant my girlfriend let me borrow her Nickel Creek CD. Some may scoff because they're a country/bluegrass group - I'm sure I'll receive an influx of redneck jokes in my inbox for writing this review - but I can't help but recommend this album to everyone. Unlike so many stereotypical "I drank too much, beat my wife, shot my dog, and now I'm depressed" country songs, the majority of Nickel Creek's music is delightful, positive, and enchanting.

Nickel Creek is the conglomeration of three highly talented youths: Chris Thile and Sara and Sean Watkins. While they're more widely known for country music than in any Christian circles, they are indeed Christians and create some very edifying music. Their debut album was produced by Alison Krauss, who has made a few appearances in the Christian market herself. One need do no more than listen to "The Hand Song" to hear the influence. Sara Watkins's angelic voice blends perfectly with the melody of the accompanying instruments to tell a story about a boy who is taught of Christ's love by his mother. She reads to him from the Bible and explains that Jesus's death on the cross was "how he hurt his hands." The child grasps an understanding of this unconditional love as he grows older, eventually joins the army, and sacrifices his own life for a friend. "The Lighthouse's Tale" is similarly a tragic ending "story song," this time with Chris Thile taking lead vocals. Not only is Thile's voice more than spectacular, but his mastery of the mandolin forms a perfect harmony with Sara's violin. Sean's quick, dashed strums on his guitar also aide the folk progressions of this track. "The Lighthouse's Tale" and "The Hand Song" are probably the most definitive Nickel Creek songs on this gold-selling debut, and without a doubt the most worthy of a listen despite their depressing conclusions.

Not all is grim on this recording, however. There are several remaining vocal tracks admirable for both musical and lyrical quality. "When You Come Back Down" is my next personal favorite; the sound resembles the early work of Caedmon's Call in most respects. Thile is at lead vocals again during this ballad meant for someone aspiring to chase their dreams. Pure, untarnished love is shown through the main lines of the chorus: "When you're soarin' through the air / I'll be your solid ground / Take every chance you dare / I'll still be there / when you come back down." The trio also boldly ventures into some pop territory on "Reasons Why." Sean takes a blues approach on the guitar as Sara sings about how easy it is to wander away from God's calling and what it takes to get back on track. This tune stresses how our excuses don't hold up when we come running back to God. Picking up the pace, Nickel Creek brings us a traditional song entitled "The Fox" that is just plain fun. This is pure country, folks, so put your square dancing boots on. Thile's lyrics are fast-paced and at times you can almost imagine Sara's violin setting off the smoke alarm. Moreover, the melody bounces around in various places, bringing out several yet untouched highs and lows from instruments and vocalists alike. Be warned though - if you're not the old-school bluegrass type and afraid your friends will decorate your front yard with cows, you should probably skip this track. Also skip-worthy are "Sweet Afton" and "Out of the Woods," both remarkably slow, monotonous, and never really go anywhere (although they employ the use of a weird instrument known only as a "bazouki"...still trying to figure out what that is).

Five instrumental pieces span the album's twelve tracks as well. The very first, "Ode To a Butterfly," opens the disc with a springy, bluegrass flair and introduces Thile as supreme lord of the banjo. Too bad this song is the only place on the CD it appears. "In The House of Tom Bombadil" follows suit, sounding much like some kind of southern Christmas song, merry and joyful all the way. It also means that at least one of the three group members is a Lord of the Rings fan, and they get major points for that. Non-J.R.R. Tolkien related is "Robin and Marian," another instrumental which relies heavily on longer violin strokes and more sophisticated guitar chords to lend it a medieval sound. We're assuming Nickel Creek had kind of a Robin Hood theme in mind for this one, and truly it sounds like something you'd hear at a Renaissance Festival. Don't let the motif fool you; towards the end of the tune it becomes increasingly more country-fied, breaking into a brief, full-scale hoedown before sinking back into its comfortable, antique style. Deserving honorable mention are "Cuckoo's Nest" and "Pastures New," although neither are interesting enough to describe here fully. You might want to try them out on your own.

The members of Nickel Creek are still quite young - all three are in their early twenties - and have some development to undergo on their craft, but this self-titled release is a terrific display of how much they've already encompassed. It's good to see country music taking a swing back towards its roots, following the footsteps of Ricky Skaggs and other trailblazers. If Nickel Creek keeps their positive message and doesn't take a major departure from their current identity, they're sure to become country's next "big thing," or possibly even a turning point from the industry's negativity. Either way, young and old alike will enjoy this trio's tonality.
- Rick Foux
July 2002
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