Nickel Creek didn’t officially break up when it went on the dreaded “indefinite hiatus” in 2007, but given the prolific and disparate solo/side-project tracks its three members subsequently followed—and the fact that the hiatus capped a nearly 20-year history for the still-young band—the break certainly seemed more like a period than an ellipsis. So the surprise re-formation of the progressive acoustic trio to commemorate its 25-year anniversary has a legitimate claim to the “reunion” tag, despite the over-employment of that term in the hype-obsessed industry. Announced just two months ago, in conjunction with a nationwide tour, Nickel Creek’s sixth album, A Dotted Line, serves as both a summary document of the group of thirtysomethings’ incongruously long history together, and an indication of how they’ve grown individually in their years apart.
At just 10 songs and 38 minutes, A Dotted Line is a concise jaunt through some of the signifiers of the group’s past discography: bluegrass-influenced instrumentation (mandolin, fiddle, guitar, occasional bass) applied to personal, modern-sounding lyrics, plus a couple of more traditional-sounding instrumentals and a pair of covers. But there’s no regression apparent in the execution, which boasts the effects of both the band members’ artistic maturation and their lived-in chemistry together. A Dotted Line’s songwriting is a step above Nickel Creek’s previous album, 2005’s Why Should The Fire Die?, which itself reflected an artistic leap for the group. (That album’s producer, Eric Valentine, returns for A Dotted Line, bringing the same warm roundness to the group’s sometimes-prickly instrumentation.) Tracks penned by mandolinist Chris Thile, particularly the excitement-stoking album-opener “Rest Of My Life” and the dynamically crescendoing “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” reflect the more experimental, rock-inclined bent he’s taken with his solo and Punch Brothers projects; while fiddle-player Sara Watkins has developed an audible confidence as a lead vocalist on the driving kiss-off “Destination” and the mournful Sam Phillips cover “Where Is Love Now” that closes the album. But their harmonies together with guitarist Sean Wilkins (Sara’s brother), sharper and more lovely than ever, help stitch together the unmistakable Nickel Creek sound. Ultimately, A Dotted Line feels more like a reflection on the band’s long, interesting history than the beginning of a new era for Nickel Creek—a reunion, not a reboot. It’s a ready-made best-of album, superb in execution but light on surprises—the major exception being the new-wave-inflected speed-folk of the percussive Mother Mother cover “Hayloft.” It’s a grin-inducing, cheeky left turn on what’s otherwise a straightforward, inviting summation of a group of ever-more-capable professionals.