Nickel Creek’s sophomore effort, This Side, is a thoughtful attempt to turn away from tradition — to make nothing less than a bluegrass art record. The concept sounds perfectly awful in theory, but in the wake of ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?”’s success, and the way these earnest young ‘uns do it, their experiment comes across as brave, interesting, and only occasionally misguided.
Nickel Creek regularly deploy a couple of country’s oldest instruments — the fiddle and the mandolin — in the service of music meant to compete not only with colleagues like Toby the Butt Kicker but also in the entire pop marketplace. When Nickel Creek cover a Pavement song, ”Spit on a Stranger,” they don’t steamroll it into a flat piece of finger pickin’ but instead pump up Stephen Malkmus’ billowing alienation, homing in on the line ”I’ll try the things you never try.” Still in their early 20s, Chris Thile and brother and sister Sean and Sara Watkins, all of whom sing and play multiple instruments, enlist as producer Alison Krauss — herself a bluegrass prodigy with a penchant for pop/art risk-taking. (Krauss also produced their eponymous debut disc.) Thile recently told Billboard magazine that Nickel Creek’s large cult following should ”expect to be uncomfortable throughout the entire record, just a little bit.”
He’s right: Malkmus’ song is rendered a tad awkwardly, as if Nickel Creek were self-conscious about tackling a piece of obstinate post-rock, and I’ll bet bluegrass purists will be covering their ears at the intentionally sour-sounding fiddling and Sara’s warbly-sweet vocal on ”I Should’ve Known Better” (a Carrie Newcomer tune, not a similarly titled Beatles song). While superior to the nontrad bluegrass forays elders such as David Grisman and Tony Rice have made over the years, ”This Side” is a rocky ride, with engagingly conversational vocals and sturdy musicianship occasionally derailed by aimless verses and off-kilter melodies.