July 2001

Nickel Creek
Sugar Hill Records SUG-CD-3909
Released: 2000

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

[Reviewed on CD]There are a number of musical styles that seem to slip through the cracks of the audiophile consciousness: rap, hip-hop and hardcore country, to name but a few. Bluegrass, however, tends to slip deeper than most, probably due to its niche-market status and lack of a popular star performer. Personally, I have always enjoyed bluegrass music, and so it was with a certain pleasure that I looked forward to reviewing this disc by Nickel Creek.

Nickel Creek consists of the father and son team of Scot Thile (bass) and Chris Thile (mandolin and vocals), augmented by the brother/sister team of Sara Watkins (violin and vocals) and Sean Watkins (guitar and vocals). With the help of producer Alison Krauss, they have created a disc that is both a look back to the past and a step into the future.

These four musicians are very talented. Scott Thile’s bass anchors the music, and each of the others plays off him. They use their abilities in various ways here, from the reflectiveness of the song "Pastures New" to the toe tapping sounds of "Cuckoo’s Nest." There are five instrumentals tunes among the twelve tracks on this album. Ten of the twelve are originals, the other two being traditional tunes arranged by the group. You can hear echoes of early Dan Fogelberg within the songs written by members of the group, which illustrates how they attempt to bring the music closer to the mainstream -- effectively, I felt.

The sound here comes very close to excellent (without quite getting there). While there isn’t much in the way of ambience (this being a studio recording, after all) there is good delineation of space between the instruments. You can readily hear both the size and tonal differences of the mandolin and acoustic guitar. The harmony vocals are clear, with each inflection apparent. The quality of the sound here should come as no real surprise given that the mastering engineer was Doug Sax. You know you're getting the best the tape had to offer.

With Nickel Creek, the Thiles and the Watkinses do bluegrass proud. As audiophiles, we should thank Sugar Hill for releasing this well-recorded musical history lesson. If you have even the least bit of interest in this type of music (or if you’re a closet bluegrass fan), you owe it to yourself to toss your coins into Nickel Creek’s musical stream.