Country Jukebox Jury LP: Nickel Creek – Strangers

Mandolin wizard Chris Thile and the Watkins siblings Sara and Sean are from Carlsbad, San Diego. I know it well having spent a lot of time over there. A girl from Southern California introduced me to the term ‘Creek freak’ and I guess that’s what I am. I actually put together a sort of Best Of from the band’s catalogue way back in 2015, which you can hear here.

The tour to promote their seventh album includes three sold-out dates in Nashville and a tour of the rootsier parts of North America that stretches all the way until October with ’57 shows across 53 cities’. That’s a lot of van hours. The trio were in the UK in January to launch this album, their first since A Dotted Line in 2014 which they made in RCA’s famous ‘A’ Room. In the decade since that album, Chris has been busy transcribing JS Bach for the mandolin thanks to a Genius Grant, touring the world with his band The Punch Brothers and stepping in to host the syndicated US radio show which used to be called A Prairie Home Companion (APHC).

Chris joined Norah Jones on her Playing Around podcast in November 2022, well before the album was announced, chatting and playing songs. Chris told a story about being told off for an appearance on APHC when he played a solo version of a White Stripes song. He obviously left an impression. Check out the Live From Here Youtube channel and be entertained for hours; Musicians’ Birthdays was the best bit, and the version of Amy Grant’s Baby Baby always puts me in a good mood.

Mike Elizondo is given co-writing credits on the album, which is apt as he was Musical Director when Chris hosted the radio show Live From Here. He has also produced Eminem among many, many others (seriously, check out his credits). For their part, Sara and Sean have had their own band Watkins Family Hour, putting out three albums, while Sara is also part of the trio I’m With Her and put out two solo albums, one of which I reviewed here.

This is their longest album yet with 18 tracks, many of which are mini-suites which start in one place and meander from section to section, sometimes dispensing with any kind of chorus or refrain. Having done this for 30 years, I’d imagine the trio would want to test both themselves and the listeners, which is exactly what artists do even if they work in an old-time genre like bluegrass. If anything, Nickel Creek are their own genre.

There were three pre-released tunes: Strangers, which begins with the self-referential line ‘it’s been too long’ and has both a mandolin solo from Chris and some semiquaverous fiddling from Sara; Holding Pattern, a tale of love whispered into the mic by Chris who is accompanied by fingerclicks on the 2 and the 4; and Where The Long Line Leads, the most direct track on the album. On it, Sara hollers her satire on hip, trendy parties (‘we’re gonna have a big time!!’) to a typically excellent Creek arrangement whose chorus isolates vocal harmonies and mandolin.

Two parts of the hyperkinetic instrumental Going Out…Despite the Weather break up the album, while Water Under the Bridge is also separated near the start and end of the album. Opening track Celebrants welcomes the listener with a ‘good to see ya’ from Chris, whose wandering lead vocal notes that we took ‘gatherings…for granted’. There’s a lot of oomph and the production mixes handclap samples with some flowing melodies from all three instruments.

New Blood is another groove-driven tune which includes mentions of Jesus and the New York Times, oysters and pearls, fever and God’s love: ‘We’ve prayed and prayed but we’re no less afraid’. Sara takes lead on that track, as well as Thinnest Wall, a lover’s spat in song, and From The Beach, which has one of the album’s best opening lines in a collection full of them: ‘Playing tag with a seagull, I’ll be it!’ Sara also gets her tongue around the name Aphitrite, and the lyric is obtuse and unclear, with the familiar sounds of double bass and mandolin carrying the listener along.

Chris and his mandolin take the lead on The Meadow, a meeting of lovers which resets folk tropes in a modern setting (‘a cup of coffee’ is mentioned in the opening line), and Goddamned Saint, a sort of eulogy in song which is a tribute to ‘a man who’d made some records I admired’. Listen out for how the music mimics the ‘torrent of light’ in the bridge section. It’s not to be listened to casually.

Sean is the vocalist on Stone’s Throw, where a syncopated rhythm anchors a song where he shows empathy for a friend who set off a ‘distressed signal’, and Hollywood Ending, which does have a chorus. The narrator tells the story of a female actor who is ‘feels but cannot see the desert for the mighty trees’. She ends up ‘painted into a corner’ but we don’t know why; the lyric is a description of inner turmoil and is devoid of specifics, so it comes off more like a mood piece, cinematography rather than actors in the foreground.

Far better, and more specific in its outward imagery, is To The Airport. It’s a great idea, a song about staff and passengers (‘the mom running stoically through each kid-unfriendly gauntlet’) with some top fiddle playing. It reminds me of Paul Simon’s song Wristband about trying to get backstage to his own show, or one of those songs from Nashville’s top writers from the perspective of a bottle of alcohol.

Failure Isn’t Forever, the album’s closing track, ends with the line ‘we’re all in it together’, which serves as a theme to the trio’s career. This is an adventurous album which deserves repeat listening. They’ll be back in the UK for The Long Road, with a date at The Barbican on September 1. Be there.

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