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Nickel Creek: This Side (Sugar Hill)

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The harmonies, earnestness, and instrumental expertise are all present, only with a definite edge.

Though its members are only in their 20s, the folk/bluegrass trio Nickel Creek already has more than a decade of performing together under its belt. Fans of their acclaimed, eponymously titled 2000 debut might expect more of the same traditional, Celtic-tinged bluegrass sound on the band’s latest release, This Side.

Don’t count on it. On this album the group—consisting of brother and sister Sean and Sara Watkins and Chris Thile—shows a much more adventurous side than the previous one, and while neo-traditionalist Alison Krauss serves as producer again this time around, the sound leans in a distinctly modern direction.

That’s not to say this album is mainstream country or pop, though. It’s still Nickel Creek, and that means the harmonies, earnestness, and instrumental expertise of their debut are all present, only this time with a definite edge. It shows up in particular on songs like “Spit on a Stranger,” which is an unexpected turn after the opening instrumental, the oddly titled “Smoothie Song” that showcases Thile’s virtuoso mandolin playing. That spare style shows up again on “Should Have Known Better,” a quirky, staccato tune whose pseudo-psychedelic lyrical arrangement contrasts with sudden swells of strings. The combination is unexpected, and it works.

This album avoids some missteps of the debut, such as the cloying, saccharine flavor of “The Hand Song.” Still, the songs written by group members retain the previous album’s heartfelt core, such as Sean Watkins’ “Speak” and Chris Thile’s “Young.” Adding to that emotional center are Sara Watkins’ vocals on songs like “Seven Wonders,” which are gently moving and moody without being gloomy.

The members of Nickel Creek are showing that they’re not content to stick with the tried and true, and that they’re willing to explore musical territory beyond traditional bluegrass without straying completely. And on This Side, it works.

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