Why Should the Fire Die?
ometimes context really does make all the difference. As a country combo, Nickel Creek is a wonderful anomaly, a nonlinear, broadly likeable bluegrass act in a story-driven, Southern rock-reviving genre with a history of being fiercely provincial.
As a pop-rock band, however, they’re Guster with chops—a younger, better-scrubbed Dave Matthews Band minus the blowhardiness, a rootsier Ryan Cabrera.
The group’s fortunate CMT homebase doesn’t diminish their accomplishments, but still it’s hard to imagine Nickel Creek, despite the prodigal musical talents of the Watkins siblings and especially mandolinist Chris Thile, would have ever stood out quite so brilliantly had they come up via the pop-rock ranks instead.
Admittedly, it’s been both a blessing and a curse for Nickel Creek too—lauded with hype and second-coming praises their music may not have quite yet deserved, the group has also been saddled with sneers and unfair expectations as media-appointed saviors of “polite” pop-country.
Whether their meteoric rise was fluke, gimmick, or fitting reward, however, Nickel Creek has certainly made the most of their chance to grow up in public, to exploit mainstream resources and follow their own evolving muse.
After five years and three albums, it’s still pleasurably jarring to hear a song like “When in Rome” sandwiched between Sugarland and Montgomery Gentry. The first single from Why Should the Fire Die?, “Rome” is organic, slyly indirect and rhythmically insistent where the rest of pop-country is usually so tightly-wound, spring-loaded and full of peaks and valleys. Granted, this is ramrod-reverent, eager-to-please newgrass we’re talking about, and Nickel Creek still exhibits an unfortunate tendency towards occasional staid antiquities like “Eveline” and “Anthony,” though the brisk, lively instrumental “Scotch and Chocolate” is every bit as physically exciting as Shooter Jennings or Big and Rich.
Of course, it’ll be even more of a treat if true standouts like “Jealous of the Moon” and “Can’t Complain” ever hit the airwaves. Impressionistic lyrics may be par for the pop-rock course, but a non-narrative litany of knotty observations on relationships is typically anathema to the detail-obsessed, proper-noun-prominent style of modern-day chart country, especially one without an easy resolution.
Why Should the Fire Die? may see Nickel Creek turn further away than ever from CMT’s trappings, but it also shows the band reaching to eclipse its more generic pop-rock reference points as well. Country’s slightly separatist relation to pop may tease out Nickel Creek’s universal sweetness, but next to equally palatable fare the group sometimes strays towards over-earnest blandness instead. Too cynical for Nashville, too trusting for MTV, it sounds like Nickel Creek is caught in no-man’s-land, but at least they’re working on a more emotionally forceful compromise. “Can’t Complain” may not convince completely, but it’s still bracing to see Nickel Creek stick a toe into the darker side of life and remain compelling while doing it.
Now, I know what you’re thinking—“y’know, Jack Johnson’s pretty moody sometimes too, so why should I care about these apple-polishers?”
Well, Jack (and Dave and Guster and John Mayer) have never been sufficiently dynamic to interject their songs with anything so brightly urgent as Sara Watkins’ voice on “Best of Luck,” and certainly none of them would have had the stones to put out a tune called “Helena” the same year as My Chemical Romance’s hysterically blubbery masterpiece—and actually have it be almost as good as MCR’s, marked by the same kinds of lovely, unexpected builds and flourishes.
Now if that ain’t country (and pop and rock), you can kiss my ass.