Why Should the Fire Die?
Nickel Creek Roars Back to Life

Apparently we’re getting the new Choir album next week.

This is the world we’re living in now. The band finished mastering their new record, Shadow Weaver, early this week. According to the email they sent out to Kickstarter backers, they’re going to live with it for a couple days, and then get it to us within a week. That is, quite frankly, bonkers. The lead time used to be months between final mastering and release, largely because the middlemen needed to be involved, complicating the entire procedure. And sure, it’s still going to be a few weeks before those of us who still love physical media get our CDs, but that’s nothing.

Essentially, Shadow Weaver is going to go from final band approval to first listen by the fans in about seven days. That is all kinds of astonishing to me, perhaps even more astonishing than the fact that this record exists at all. (A 15th album from a 30-year-old band that rarely sold more than a few thousand copies of anything? That defies all the rules of the music industry as it once was.) The Internet has made it possible for fans to directly connect with the artists they love, and hear new music almost as soon as the band finishes it. As someone once said, it’s a good, great world.

And hey, we’re gonna get the new Choir album next week! How awesome is that?

* * * * *

We talked a little last week about artists evolving beyond a signature sound. Longtime fans will forgive me for this, I hope, but I thought that’s what had happened with Chris Thile.

I’m a relative newcomer to Thile’s work, although it’s clear even to me that he’s one of the best mandolin players alive. I got into him through albums like Deceiver and the first Punch Brothers disc, and I enjoyed that band’s genre-busting third record, Who’s Feeling Young Now, enough to name it the third-best record of 2012. As such, I’d been thinking of his albums with newgrass trio Nickel Creek as Thile’s “old work” – worthy, but he’d clearly grown past it to the less traditional stuff he’s been turning out with his new group.

So news of a Nickel Creek reunion initially surprised me. Looking back, though, it shouldn’t have. Yes, Nickel Creek – Thile with Sean and Sara Watkins – has more of a bedrock in traditional bluegrass, but they’ve always been more innovative than they’re given credit for, and their new album A Dotted Line finds them incorporating all that extracurricular growth into something warm and familiar and wonderful.

It’s immediately clear what has drawn these three back to work with one another again – their alchemy is undeniable. The harmonies are like honey. Actually, they’re like some Platonic ideal of honey, like the most perfectly sweet honey you’ve ever tasted. These three voices were meant to go together, and they intertwine so gracefully that metaphors completely fail to capture it. If you’ve heard Nickel Creek, you know what I mean – they’ve always sounded like this, and it’s lovely.

If you have doubts that the band can slip right back into their gorgeous sound, just listen to “Destination,” which is incidentally one of the best pop songs of 2014 so far. Sara Watkins takes lead on this tune, but it’s the three voices that carry it, particularly through the splendid “moving on” sections. It’s so propulsive that you’ll forget that there’s no percussion on it – guitar, mandolin and fiddle, and that’s it. That lineup serves them well, whether they’re skipping through a more bluegrass-folk number like “21st of May” or dropping something with more of a rock feel, like opener “Rest of My Life.” They do all these things with graceful aplomb.

It’s not just the voices, though, as the two instrumentals attest. While “Elise” is a Thile composition, “Elephant in the Corn” is a group effort, and it sounds like it. The song travels up hills and down valleys over its five minutes, and showcases not only how fantastic all three are at their chosen instruments, but how well they play together. One track later, they lock into a tremendous groove for the angsty “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” and it’s like liquid lightning.

The two covers on A Dotted Line are the best illustration of this band’s depth. In what will probably draw the most controversy, they tackle “Hayloft,” originally by Canadian band Mother Mother. You can hear the original here. Now imagine that on bluegrass instruments, with some thundering percussion – yes, percussion – shoving it along. It’s the most out-there thing they’ve done, and it’s amazing. On the other end of the spectrum, they close the record with Sam Phillips’ “Where Is Love Now,” and their take is simple, traditional and tender. Sara Watkins sings like an angel, and her fiddle is so beautiful it will bring tears.

Somewhere between these two extremes lies Nickel Creek, a band that deserves to be known as more than Thile’s other group. I’m not sure anyone but me has ever thought of them that way, but A Dotted Line has convinced me how wrong-headed that notion is. If Thile ends up splitting his time between Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek from now on, I won’t object. This is the best kind of reunion album – one that makes a case not only for the continuing prospects of the band, but for its legacy as a whole. This is Nickel Creek, and they’re fantastic.

* * * * *

I don’t usually go in for “best we’ve ever made” proclamations when a band releases a new album, and I generally feel like a chump when I do buy into them. I’m happy that you’re happy with your new stuff, but let’s be honest, you probably don’t have the best of perspectives on your own catalog right now. You’re high on your own creative process.

Case in point: Peter Mulvey’s new album, Silver Ladder. Mulvey’s a hidden treasure, a folksy guy with a dark side and a strong sense of innovation. I first heard him in 1997, when his then-record label sent me a copy of a long-out-of-print EP called Goodbye Bob. The first track was an acoustic cover of Prince’s “Sign O’ the Times,” and the last track an epic poem called “The Dreams.” I was hooked, and I’ve followed his work ever since.

So when Mulvey said Silver Ladder was the best thing he’d ever made, I immediately gave to his Kickstarter drive to support it. The fundraising effort was phenomenally successful – he asked for $23,000 and got $62,247 – and he hopes to use that money to promote this record to the hilt. That’s all well and good, but now that Silver Ladder is here, I have to say, Mulvey was wrong. It’s a solid enough effort, but it’s certainly nowhere near the best work he’s done.

The first and only time I saw Peter Mulvey play was in 1998 at Raoul’s Roadside Attraction in Portland, Maine. It was the night he wrote one of his best songs, “The Trouble With Poets.” As part of his between-song banter, Mulvey revealed that he really didn’t like playing the guitar, and had to come up with new ways of conquering the instrument. This led him to things like “If Love is Not Enough,” a sorta-bluegrass fret-buzz workout, and that aforementioned downtuned Prince cover.

Listening to Silver Ladder, I think Mulvey has become comfortable playing guitar. He isn’t trying to innovate with it as much as he once did, and he’s settled into a more traditional style. This lines up with his recent work with folk collective Redbird, and last year’s two-CD collection of standards, The Good Stuff and Chaser. He’s been in much more of a classic folk mode lately, and the first few songs on Silver Ladder bear that out. “Lies You Forgot You Told” and “You Don’t Have to Tell Me” are jaunty yet simple things, and “Sympathies” is built around a pretty worn-out rock riff.

Things get better, but the entire affair is slicker than Mulvey’s been in the past. Silver Ladder was produced by Chuck Prophet, who also plays a bunch of instruments on it, and it’s the first one in a long time that does not feature David “Goody” Goodrich on guitar, a cornerstone of Mulvey’s sound. It’s all enjoyable, but it rarely sounds like the Peter Mulvey I know and love. There are definitely highlights, particularly the menacing “What Else Was It” and the folksy “Trempealeau,” but there are an equal number of simple ditties like “Back in the Wind” that drag the record down.

The final three tracks show an imagination that the rest of the record lacks. “Copenhagen Airport” is practically an instrumental. “If You Shoot at a King You Must Kill Him” is the album’s finest moment, a stream-of-consciousness dream diary that feels like an epic poem. “Landfall” is a brief coda featuring lovely fiddle by Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek. These tracks burst with potential, and if Mulvey and Prophet had followed this path further, I would probably like Silver Ladder more than I do.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a bad record. It’s enjoyable stuff, for the most part. But it’s not among Mulvey’s best work, particularly when you consider how great his most recent albums (like Letters From a Flying Machine) have been. Perhaps it’s a case of heightened expectations, but I wanted more from this record, and didn’t get it. Silver Ladder is fine, but Mulvey’s done much better.

* * * * *

Next week, The Choir. THE CHOIR. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.