I love watching young musical wunderkinds mature. Nickel Creek, whose three members started playing together when they were barely in their teens, have all reached their early twenties. This Side, their latest CD, reveals the more experimental side of their musical personalities. The opening cut "Smoothie Song," which got its name from their fans at a concert who were solicited for possible tittles, has a less traditional form combined with a bluesy quasi-Celtic opening melodic line. It sets the tone for the rest of the CD -- the combination of familiar and beautiful melodies with unusual forms, musical textures, and patterns. The provocatively titled "Spit on A Stranger" is less a punk anthem than a neo-Beatleistic pop confection complete with phasey multi-layered background vocals.
While their last album put each member’s considerable musicianship in the forefront, This Side focuses on the songs and their craftily complicated arrangements designed to create different sonic moods. Sarah Watkins, Sean Watkins, and Chris Thile's considerable vocal skills have been moved to the front on This Side. All but a few songs are originals. Sean Watkins contributes three new tunes while Chris Thile penned five compositions and one re-arrangement of the traditional tune "House Carpenter."
Producer Alison Krauss must be held partially responsible for Nickel Creek's more polished pop sound on This Side, but anyone who’s seen the band live during the past year will find the album’s sonics to be a very accurate representation of the group's live concerts, just a bit more polished and texturally complex.
Although Nickel Creek may have begun as a bluegrass band populated by musical whiz kids, they have grown into a group whose music is not limited or constrained by musical labels. Neo-modern acoustic chamber pop is the closest I can come to defining this new and unique musical genre. If you want to hear what the future of pop music sounds like, give This Side a spin. Although "musical genius" is a phrase besmirched by the foul aura of hyperbole, in Nickel Creek's case it seems completely appropriate.