By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Heard this called "progressive bluegrass" or some such, and it is, I suppose, if only because the three members of Nickel Creek aren't one foot in the grave and may eventually cover a song from Beck's One Foot in the Grave. The group--guitarist Sean Watkins, his sister Sara on fiddle and Chris Thile on mandolin, all taking turns singing lead--come pretty close to the latter on This Side, offering a rollicking redo of "Spit on a Stranger," the languid leadoff track from Pavement's 1999 swan song, Terror Twilight. It may be the best song here, every hint of novelty gone by the time the first chorus comes; Ricky Skaggs couldn't pull it off, but it fits just fine on this tousle-haired trio, who probably actually listen to Pavement or have at some point.
Though they're all three outstanding players (Sean made it to the finals at the National Flatpicking Championship when he was 16, and Thile recorded his first solo album, Leading Off, when he was 12), they never show it. Or, at least, they never show off, letting their considerable chops do the heavy lifting instead of adding another weight on top, burying the songs under look-at-me solos. As a result, songs such as the title track and "Young" and their take on Carrie Newcomer's "I Should've Known Better" sorta stick to the group's picking-and-grinning roots, but wouldn't sound out of place on CMT--not unlike the Dixie Chicks' new Home, on which Thile adds his mandolin. This Side isn't without a down side--minus "Young," the second half of the disc proves that sometimes a Nickel is just worth 5 cents--but for the most part, their old style and new sensibility come together comfortably. Much more so than, say, the way poor Ralph Stanley looked wearing a leather jacket on the cover of his latest album. That used to be the way to add modern touches to bluegrass discs. It's not anymore.
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