Nickel Creek, “A Dotted Line” (Sugar Hill Records, 2014)
“A Dotted Line,” Nickel Creek’s sixth studio release, is the comeback album for the band after a seven-year hiatus. The record is chock-full of three-part harmonies and plenty of violin, mandolin, and guitar — as any proper bluegrass album should be. “A Dotted Line” is a well-executed ode for the band’s resurgence, especially if you get the chance to listen through the record on vinyl with a pair of high-quality headphones. The strong return is proven in their signature instrumentals, solid vocals sharing comforting lyrics, and their unique spin on the bluegrass/Americana genre.
Nickel Creek formed after Chris Thile and Sean Watkins met while taking mandolin lessons under John Moore in Southern California. Watkins’ sister, Sara Watkins, was also taking lessons, but under Moore’s bandmate, Dennis Caplinger. Now, the lineup is Thile on mandolin, Sara Watkins on fiddle, and Sean Watkins on guitar. Since their first record in 1993, the band has been known for their instrumentals. Traditionally, they have about an average of a third of each record’s playing time dedicated to tracks that puts the listener in on a Nickel Creek jam session. With the exception of “A Dotted Line,” though, where the only instrumental tracks are “Elsie,” and “Elephant in the Corn.” Although there are only two instrumentals on this record of ten tracks, it can feel like more, since each spin brings something new to the table. “Elsie” and “Elephant in the Corn” stick to the traditional Nickel Creek style: littered with complicated fiddle licks, classically-quick mandolin strums, and a steady bass keeping it all together.
While Thile and Sara Watkins are the two lead vocalists on the majority of the record, all three have a chance to showcase their vocal talent on “A Dotted Line.” In an interview with David Dye on the World Cafe in May, Sara Watkins fesses up that the group has decided “there’s never enough three-part harmonies. If we think we can throw one in there, we say, ‘Well why not!’” One of the strongest examples of their harmonic and lyrical talent is on “Rest of My Life,” the first track on the record. Especially after their hiatus, hearing Thile croon “The battle is over,” brings a sense of calm in before the bluegrass-Americana party that lies embedded in the rest of the record. Of course, Sara Watkins brings back her stronger, matured female voice on her lead vocal tracks of “Destination” and “Where is Love Now.” Arguably the most popular song on the record, “Destination” holds more empowering lyrics such as “You don’t owe me/one more minute of your wasted time/you act like it’s all fine.”
Nickel Creek also puts a modern spin on the traditional bluegrass style by incorporating tracks such as “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” and “Hayloft.” The bass is more prominent, the vocals are quick, and the tempo changes multiple times throughout the tunes. “Hayloft” also has Thile and Sara Watkins splitting the lead vocals, (a change for the group), and a larger emphasis on percussion usage. These additions to the record seem to have helped open the door of opportunity to expand their audience base, and are just two examples that Nickel Creek is certainly not the same band that took an “indefinite” hiatus in 2007.
Although “A Dotted Line” was originally set to be an EP, let’s all be thankful that the writing process went so smoothly for the trio, so we could welcome these ten tunes into our music libraries and keep them there for the days we need to celebrate, the days we’re homesick, or maybe just the days where we need a good fiddle lick.