Through all the fads and phases of popular music — from early rock ’n roll to K-pop — there seems to always have been an underlying acoustic aesthetic keeping music grounded to a certain core. I started writing this review attempting to trace this pattern but it soon turned into a mini epic worthy of its own article (which I may write someday!). Instead, I’ll just jump ahead to near current times when in the 00s a group of fresh young faces emerged with fresh new ideas for where acoustic music might go: Nickel Creek.
Prodigies recording and touring in the 90s, Nickel Creek crossed over into the mainstream pubic eye when none other than the great Alison Krauss produced their eponymously titled (third, but arguably, debut) album. They became enormously popular — even more than I imagined actually, as I read up on them for this review — so much so that it might be argued they helped kickstart a new wave of acoustic driven music (Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine, etc.).
I can’t remember where I first heard Nickel Creek — probably at a record store — but I was taken with them immediately and picked up some of their albums. I really loved the way they blended traditional folk, country and bluegrass textures with more aggressive alternative / modern rock sensibilities. I think the first of their albums I got was called Why Should The Fire Die? It was beautifully recorded and sounded terrific even on CD. It was also brilliantly played and sung. Perhaps most importantly there were these songs jumping out: great originals and a choice cover.
When the good folks at Craft Recordings asked me if I was interested in checking out their new vinyl reissues I was more than thrilled. Their three seminal alt-folk / alt-country (yada yada yada) albums have been reissued in very deluxe edition packages.
From the official press release:
“All albums were cut at 45RPM and have been pressed on 180-gram vinyl at MPO, featuring mastering from the original tapes or high-resolution sources by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering. The hi-resolution audio for each album will also be made digitally available for the first time album (192/24 for Why Should the Fire Die?, 96/24 for This Side and 48/24 for Nickel Creek), mastered by Paul Blakemore”
I’ve been digging into these beautiful vinyl editions and in many ways they might be the nicest offerings I’ve seen and heard yet from Craft Recordings. While I have heard at least one complaint from a fan on Facebook (who had to return copies), the pressings I received have been perfect. The fidelity is outstanding spinning at 45 RPM. The mastering is excellent, complementing the music wonderfully with a warm welcoming glow that belies any digital roots. Even the high resolution streams I’ve spot checked on Tidal and Qobuz sound great! Here is a rundown of some of what I heard initially.
This Platinum selling album produced by Alison Krauss sounds amazing from the get go. “The Lighthouse’s Tale” could be a terrific demo which its gorgeously recorded acoustic guitars, mandolins and spare but haunting vocals. “Sweet Afton” is so sparse and yet rich, just mandolin and violin and vocal at the start and then the stand up bass and acoustic guitar comes in to signal the arrival of vocal harmonies. What a lovely build! Yes, this one has demo disc written all over it. Nickel Creek streaming on both Qobuz (click here) and Tidal (click here) at 24-bit, 48 kHz resolution. It sounds nice there but the vinyl experience feels richer (plus by buying their records you get to support the band).
Nickel Creek’s Grammy-winning follow up (Best Contemporary Folk Album) to their Sugar Hill Records debut (also produced by Krauss) is no slouch. Featuring the great cover of Pavement’s “Spit On A Stranger,” this album starts to take the group more down the path of Alt-folk country and out into progressive bluegrass pastures. I didn’t have this one before, so its been an especially wonderful journey listening with fresh ears. The opening track, “Smoothie Song” sounded like what might happen if Dave Grisman crossed paths in the forest with Jerry Goodman from the Mahavishnu Orchestra, all in a three minute instrumental journey. Like the first album, the sound on this 45 RPM pressing is just rich with demo-worthy material. Great sonics, great songs, great vibe all around. These folks can write some great tunes too—with different production and instrumentation, the title track could have easily been a hit for any number of alternative rock bands on the radio. You can find This Side streaming in 24/96 resolution on Tidal (click here) and Qobuz (click here), both sounding excellent, rich and round.
Side note: I’m kind of excited to have discovered that there was an SACD version of This Side issued in 2002 in multi-channel surround — I’ll be trying to track that one down soon, for sure!
Again, this was my entry point to Nickel Creek and this vinyl version of Why Should The Fire Die? is making me fall in love all over again with this music. “Scotch & Chocolate” starts out with a hauntingly beautiful Mandolin melody before running into fast paced romp this side “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
“Can’t Complain” underscores the beauty of this group, that they can craft a plaintive heart breaker of an acoustic pop song — one that I could hear Lou Barlow of Sebadoh covering on one of his solo albums — with progressive rock flavored bridge changes this side of early ELO. That scorching bowed acoustic bass line — ripping through the song’s wistful fog before the song wraps up in a passionately shouted vocal that would make Glen Hansard proud — is just perfect.
After that, the lovely cover of Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” is almost anticlimactic! “Best of Luck” adds some percussion and relative to the rest of the album it lends an almost new wave sensibility — if you played this song with a full drum kit and a Les Paul overdriving a Fender Bassman amplifier you’d have a rocker that would make Neil Young proud. “Helena” is a full on rocker worthy that would fit right in with a Frames album.
It is worth noting that this album was remastered all-analog from the original tapes. You can find Why Should The Fire Die? streaming in 24/192 resolution on Qobuz (click here) and on Tidal (click here). Both sound excellent as digital streams go.
Why Should The Fire Die? was the band’s highest-charting album, reaching #17 on the Billboard Top 200 and #1 on the Top Bluegrass Albums Chart!
Most of the colored vinyl variants of these new Nickel Creek reissues were produced in small quantities (500 each) and seem to be sold out via their official store (click here) but if you poke around the Interwebs you’ll probably be able to find them on Discogs or eBay. That said, they are some of the nicest colored vinyl pressings I’ve heard in recent years — thick, quiet, well centered and super lovely to look at!
Bravo Craft Recordings and congratulations to Nickel Creek for a powerful trio of recordings getting a new lease on life in the vinyl universe. Now I need to get their 2014 reunion release and also pre-order the live album from that tour (click here).