Nickel Creek is the hottest acoustic trio in the U.S., and judging by Why Should the Fire Die?, its popularity won’t soon wane. I’m glad, not only for them, but for the future of pop music. Nickel Creek proves that smart, complicated music can also be popular.
Obviously, the three members of Nickel Creek – Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins – are all virtuosi. But, knowing your way around your instrument does not make your music popular. Popularity comes from connecting with your audience. So how does Nickel Creek do it? Their success stems from their music’s combination of new and old. Their primary influences are Celtic, bluegrass, jug band, and folk music, and their musical structures draw on Dixieland jazz, classical, Tin Pan Alley ditties, and even Beatlesque pop.
But what makes Nickel Creek’s music fresh? The answer lies in its rhythmic and melodic invention. Most of the songs go through at least three rhythm changes and several melodic twists. These variations transform every tune into a theatrical event with dramatic impact far above most contemporary music.
The first track, “When in Rome,” epitomizes the Nickel Creek style. It begins with solo mandolin recorded on primitive equipment to give the sound an antique feeling before the song explodes into a full-frequency power riff. Dynamics then drop back for the opening verse, followed by the power riff. The bridge doesn’t happen until nearly two minutes into the song, and at 2:40, the rhythm drops away completely for a verse before the primary riff comes storming back, this time with a round treatment that wraps up the arrangement. Western classical music succeeds primarily by building up musical expectations, postponing them, and finally fulfilling them at the composition’s conclusion. Nickel Creek’s arrangements work in a similar manner.
Produced by Tony Berg and Eric Valentine, Why Should The Fire Die? is a more organic production than Nickel Creek’s last release, the Alison Krauss-produced This Side. Valentine and Berg keep the spotlight on the music, with a more natural, unadorned palette.
Why Should the Fire Die? is a monster. It debuted at number one on Billboard’s independent-album chart, #17 on the Top 200 album chart. Popular? You bet. But popularity doesn’t always mean dumb.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Dec. ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.