Back in the early 2000s, when Nickel Creek released its breakthrough self-titled album, the trio was playing a brand of Americana that felt wholly alien in the bubblegum-pop landscape of the day. Looking back, those forays seemed like a premonition of the Mumford & Sons stadium-folk revolution to come.
Chris Thile and siblings Sara and Sean Watkins have clearly matured since their child-prodigy days (the band formed in 1989 before they were teenagers). But on A Dotted Line, their first album since 2005′s Why Should the Fire Die? and the extended hiatus that began in 2007, their voices blend more evenly than before and individual stylistic choices are given room to develop. Each member takes turns leading the group: Thile’s mandolin playing continues to challenge the limits of its eight strings, especially on the lead single, “You Don’t Know What’s Going On.” Sara’s fiddling and her singing, especially on “Destination” and the rowdy “Hayloft” (a cover of a 2008 song by Canadian band Mother Mother), radiate strength and pain. And Sean provides steadfast rhythms throughout, especially on “Christmas Eve” and “21st of May.” Best, though, is when these three immensely talented performers unite, like on the instrumental “Elephant in the Corn” and the harmony-rich ballad “Rest of My Life.”
Each of the three members of Nickel Creek have kept busy with other endeavors — Thile has maintained an immensely successful career as a composer and performer, while the Watkins siblings have pursued solo and collaborative projects of their own. It’s remarkable that even after abandoning the progressive-bluegrass revolution it pioneered, Nickel Creek returns and still holds its own.