Like many bands, the three southern Californians of Nickel Creek have their compelling levels of mystery. But sometimes they still get asked to describe their music.
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"When I meet someone on a plane, someone who sees the instrument and wants to know what I do," says mandolinist Chris Thile, "I always say, 'It's acoustic."
Guitarist Sean Watkins extols the freedom a trio can provide. "Because we knew each other so well musically as well as personally, our songs can take different shapes live without too much thought -- and it's really nice to have three versatile instruments when we leave the page."
Violinist Sara Watkins will sum things up. "We use a lot of detailed arrangements, but there is also room for improvisation. I think of us as a sort of high-energy chamber band."
On Why Should the Fire Die?, Nickel Creek are like any other band—any other band who manage to write, play, and sing a commanding album. It is their third collection for Sugar Hill Records, following 2002's This Side and 2000's eponymous debut. It was recorded in Los Angeles with producers Eric Valentine (who has overseen projects for Smashmouth and Queens of the Stone Age) and Tony Berg. Although the music bursts with contemporary nerve, the recording sessions drew on the timeless power of classic analog equipment, vintage reverb, and single-stereo microphones. The result is a newly unignorable Nickel Creek who fuse and personalize a wide array of styles with uncommon vigor and élan.
"We figured out some things that we have to offer," Thile says, "and we're worrying much less about needing to be any particular kind of band except the one that we are right now."
"We've worked a long time, beginning in bluegrass," Sean Watkins says. "It provided us with great base-levels to build on."
"We'd been listening for years to musicians, from Bela Fleck to the Beatles, that pushed envelopes," says Thile. "We wanted to be challenged. Then we started writing songs. An honesty issue arose at that point: Like, we probably shouldn't necessarily write songs set back in the hills about moonshine and coal-miners."
The fourteen songs on Why Should the Fire Die? occur in an inescapably modern world where people show up only later to walk away, where hearts break and heal, events shift from dodgy to better to somewhere in between, and where dizzying amounts of music fly in and out of the soundtracks of people's alternately frazzled and peaceful lives.
Still, Nickel Creek aren't style collectors. They integrate. "We're not genre-hoppers," Thile says. "We take no pride in just haphazardly throwing together genres that haven't met before. 'Let's play bluegrass and reggae! Both have a lot of backbeat!' We don't want to do that. If we're going to blend genres, we'd like it to be genre soup, where you can't see what's in it-as opposed to genre stew, where everything is very defined."
On some songs-such as the rollicking album opener "When in Rome," the tightly-wound "Best of Luck," and "Helena," a gripping dramatization of mounting romantic disappointment that builds with real raw sonic youth—Nickel Creek seize on their new instrumental coinages with uncommon flash and movement. The music is both visceral and virtuosic, intimate and gestural. "Helena," Thile says, "builds massively, because this character is deteriorating before your eyes." Other songs, such as "Somebody More like You," which explores a magnetic connection between acoustic and techno rhythms, or the questing title tune and "Doubting Thomas," take more balladic tacks.
Near the middle of Why Should the Fire Die?, Sara Watkins sings a version of Bob Dylan's classic ballad "Tomorrow Is a Long Time," imparting with her tonal alternations of breathiness and security twin auras of the contemporary and the ageless. Similarly, on pieces such as the Celtic-flavored "Scotch & Chocolate" and the happily mountainesque "Stumptown," Nickel Creek jam on instrumentals akin to what they played as kids at festival and contests. These excursions, Thile says, "feel like home, like touching base." Sara Watkins agrees. "They incorporate much of what we grew up loving about instrumental music and arrangement."
Sometimes songs steal or stalk into new places. "We spent a lot of time last year writing together as band," Sean Watkins says. "We'd shack up, try to come up with stuff. A lot of times it was from scratch; other times it was from pieces on older songs we'd had. From there, we pooled everything together."
In "Can't Complain," a seriously deluded character guesses that he and his ultimately lost girlfriend "kidnapped each other's minds;" the song, Thile says, "comes from an apathetic guy whose comfort with his own behavior becomes markedly uncomfortable for the listener."
The Thile-Watkins composition "Eveline" explores both irregular tunings and a James Joyce short story. Other times the band treat a song that originated from one member, such as on Sara Watkins' "Anthony," a personal plaint with elegant drifts of old theater music, and "Jealous of the Moon," an hypnotically sung country waltz with a bitter sweetheart of a chorus, written by Thile with Gary Louris of the Jayhawks. The song is about fear, "rivers of lies," and the desperate desire to fly. It is an affecting example of, as Thile puts it, "amplifying tiny little emotions or inclinations, of seeing just how far they might go."
"I think a definitive aspect of this record was our willingness to let our ideas be edited by each other," Sean Watkins says. "It resulted in a CD that we feel is an honest representation of who we are right now as a band.
"What sets this record apart in our minds," Thile says, "is that we're doing things now that are definite parts of our band, that are totally within character. We're trying to push ourselves to our limits, not into a place where we feel like we're just sort of gingerly stepping around because we're not sure where we are."
"We had a wonderful time working hard on this record," says Sara Watkins. "We tried to suit each song well by being aware of and leaving room for each other."
Nickel Creek indeed leave room on 'Why Should the Fire Die?' They leave room for the mesmerizing.
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