Is it the most masculine album to keep tucked away in the Freezer? Probably not. But does it deserve a spot in there? You bet your ass it does. Nickel Creek’s self-titled debut album is an incredible collection of songs displaying the talents of three extremely gifted musicians, some great songwriting, and some funky instrumental bluegrass jams. There is a whole hell of a lot that I like about this album, and therefore, for organization’s sake, here is a list of the top 10 reasons why Nickel Creek deserves a spot in the Freezer:
10. The incredibly cheesy album cover art
The album cover features just about the corniest picture imaginable: the trio staring at us intensely with a majestic ocean/sunset backdrop. Chris Thile and Sean Watkins are rocking hairdos reminiscent of a 90’s boy band, with frosted tips and enough hair gel to hold a house up in tornado. The album cover never fails to make me smile for two reasons: (1) because it immediately makes me think of the marketing strategy employed by Eric Cartman on the album cover for his Christian rock band, Faith + 1, and (2) because the lameness of the album cover is so divergent from the greatness of the album itself.
9. The vocals and fiddle playing of
Thile is obviously the most prominent member to emerge from Nickel Creek with his solo releases and work with his current band, Punch Brothers. But, this album displays how great of a musician and vocalist Watkins is in her own right. On “Ode to Butterfly” she displays some fantastic bluegrass-style fiddle playing chops, and “The Cuckoo’s Nest” features her expanding to show off some awesome Irish-folk style fiddle skills. Watkins also proves herself to be an extremely talented vocalist, especially on “Reasons Why”, where her beautiful voice is perfectly displayed. Sara Watkins may not have gone on to have the same sort of fame and fanfare as Thile, but she deserves plenty of credit for her contributions to making Nickel Creek a unique and superb album.
8. Poetic lyrics and songwriting
The song “Sweet Afton” is poetic in the most literal sense, in that it is a sung interpretation of the poem written by Robert Burns. However, the rest of the album’s vocal songs feature lyrics that are often equally as poetic. Thile and the Watkins siblings are such brilliant musicians that their songwriting and vocal capabilities are easily overlooked. With songs such as “The Lighthouse Tale”, “Reasons Why”, and “The Hand Song”, Nickel Creek features lyrics depicting love, loss, and natural beauty in a manner that exemplifies their mastery of being able to accompany their instrumental talents with the imaginative and romantic songwriting that makes this album unforgettable.
7. A Nerdy-Cool Lord of the Rings Reference
I will go ahead and admit that I am a lifelong science fiction nerd and huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, and therefore, any album featuring a Lord of the Rings reference scores major points in my book. “House of Tom Bombadil” is a rocking instrumental bluegrass jam referring to a chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring and the mysterious and jovial character Tom Bombadil, who is always up for a song. Thile has made several Tolkien references in his music throughout his career, including taking the name of his solo album, Not All Who Wander are Lost, from a poem featured in The Fellowship of Ring, and writing a song titled “Riddles in the Dark” named after a chapter in The Hobbit. I suppose I take comfort in knowing that if Chris Thile is a Tolkien nerd, then at least I am in good company.
6. Adoration of nature
Nickel Creek is almost Thoreau-esque in its glorifying depictions of nature. The album features a song about a fox, instrumental songs referencing butterflies and cuckoos, and some beautifully descriptive imagery of the ocean in “The Lighthouse Tale” and a Scottish river in “Sweet Afton”. It is clear that the trio has a serious appreciation for nature, and I dig that about them.
5. A song told from the point of view of a fox
Whether it’s Iggy Pop’s “King of the Dogs”, Genesis’ “All in a Mouse’s Night”, or TV On The Radio’s “Stork & Owl”, I’m a sucker for songs told from the point of view of an animal. Nickel Creek’s interpretation of “The Fox”, which is a traditional folk-tune that is thought to date all the way back to the fifteenth century, is simply put just a fun and folksy bluegrass-style song. The story of a fox stealing a duck from a farmhouse seems destined to be accompanied with Thile’s mandolin and Watkins’ fiddle. If I were a fox, this song would be my anthem.
4. Awesome instrumental jams
While Nickel Creek is certainly not a bluegrass album through and through, its instrumental songs provide a representation of their bluegrass roots and their incredible talent as musicians. “In The House of Tom Bombadil”, “Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Ode to a Butterfly”, and “Pastures New” provide especially awesome displays of their instrumental talents and bluegrass prowess. Thile’s mandolin, Sara’s fiddle, and Sean’s guitar accompany each other perfectly to make for spectacular and harmonious instrumental pieces that will enthrall both bluegrass fans and anyone else that can appreciate truly awesome displays of musical talent.
3. The Lighthouse Tale
“Then on the next day, my keeper found her washed up on the sand.
He kissed her cold face, that they’d be together soon he’d swore.
I saw him crying, watched as he buried her in the sand.
And then he climbed my tower, and off of the edge of me he ran.”
Who could imagine that a song told from the point of view of a lighthouse could be so damn heartbreaking? “The Lighthouse Tale”, in my opinion, is the best song on the album and perhaps the best vocal song ever released by Nickel Creek. From the imagery of the lighthouse’s ocean surroundings to its tear-jerking story, this track is a truly great piece of songwriting and an ideal tune to throw on when you’re feeling blue and are in the mood for something emotionally poignant.
2. Chris Thile
I am a huge Chris Thile fan, and I think that he may very well be the best mandolin player on earth. Thile was a famously precocious musician who became well known for his talents at a very young age. On Nickel Creek, which was released when he was only 19, Thile shows off both his amazing skills as a world-class mandolin musician and his talents as a songwriter. The album displays Thile’s incredible talent and features fantastic mandolin playing on pretty much every track, but check out “Ode to a Butterfly” and “Robin and Marian” to hear Thile at his best.
1. It helped me, and many others, discover
a love for bluegrass music
This was the first bluegrass-esque album that I was ever exposed to, and I credit this album for initially turning me on to the genre. The album’s blend of instrumental bluegrass style jams with vocal songs featuring more of a mainstream sound provided an introduction into the world of progressive bluegrass for many people, including myself. Listening to Nickel Creek led me to start getting into bands such as Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth, The String Cheese Incident, and Trampled by Turtles, and helped me discover my love for progressive bluegrass music. Nickel Creek’s debut album is not strictly a bluegrass album, and it probably isn’t considered by many to be a particularly influential or important piece of music. But, for acting as an outstanding and widely appealing introduction to bluegrass-style music for me and many others, Nickel Creek undoubtedly deserves a spot in the Freezer.
~ Austin Perez