Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line (2014)

Nickel Creek formed in 1989 when Sean Watkins was just 11 years old. By the time 2007 rolled around, the trio, which also includes Sara Watkins (fiddle, vocals) and Chris Thile (mandolin, vocals), took an “indefinite hiatus.” Despite the fact that this shocked many fans, it wasn’t that surprising. The band had already walked countless miles together.

With an eternity having passed since the first jaunts through festivals and even a Grammy Award, Nickel Creek has returned with A Dotted Line.

The title perhaps denotes how unclear the break was, how much it served as a chance for reflection. Sara, Sean and Chris took part in several projects as individuals, with Thile forming the progressive bluegrass outfit Punch Brothers. Sean joined with Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman to form Fiction Family, while Sara released a pair of solo records and toured with the likes of the Decemberists.

A Dotted Line, then, is the point at which the aforementioned expeditions collect themselves, dust themselves off and carry on — together.

As much as the trip has taken Thile and the Watkins siblings through success, it’s also taken them through to their thirtysomethings. That’s a hell of a ride in and of itself, so it stands to reason that A Dotted Line not only points the way forward but takes a look back at all that’s passed in the days since early gigs in pizza joints.

There is classic bluegrass instrumentation, like “Elephant in the Corn,” and there is progressive New Wave (“Hayloft”). The latter fits as a sign of things to come, perhaps, but it also serves as a dazzling statement of melding genres, textures and rhythms.

And of course there is “Destination,” which features Sara’s honest vocals at the core and the harmonies in the night sky. Everything about the piece feels organic, from Thile’s picking to the way the notes crease in on themselves when the chorus breaks open.

There’s also a shattering Sam Phillips cover to close things out. “Where is Love Now” is the sort of contemplative, patient tune that can only come out of years of break-ups, make-ups and fuck-ups. Once again Sara’s vocals are magnificent, particularly as they blend with the rest of Nickel Creek, and once again the results are as heart-wrenching as they are bracing.

A Dotted Line is, as the title indicates, a record of openness and opportunity. Whether you call them bluegrass, progressive bluegrass or something in between (or beyond), these Nickel Creek cats are going to be alright after all.

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Jordan Richardson

Jordan Richardson is a Canadian freelance writer and ne'er-do-well. He also contributes to his own Canadian Cinephile and Canadian Audiophile websites. Contact Something Else! Reviews at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.