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New On Disc: Nickel Creek, The Pretty Reckless

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Nickel Creek A Dotted Line (Nonesuch) -

When bluegrass/Americana darlings Nickel Creek took a "hiatus" in 2007, the focus was no longer on an insanely-accomplished trio that were too good to be true (after all, the glare of that spotlight can be more than a little inhibitive), but that sabbatical was in brand only. Sara and Sean Watkins took the time to create their own supergroup, Works Progress Administration (featuring members of Tom Petty's and Elvis Costello's respective bands) fronted by a singer we hadn't heard from in ages - the underrated Glen Phillips (from Toad The Wet Sprocket). Sara also recorded two solo albums of her own, produced by none other than Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones (a huge fan.)

Chris Thile, meanwhile, was the busiest of the bunch: not only did he polish off three albums for his edgier alt-bluegrass side-project, Punch Brothers, but teamed up with heavyweights Yo Yo Ma (cellist prodigy extraordinaire) and Edgar Meyer (jazz/classical bassist) for The Goat Rodeo Sessions, and then, inspired by their scholarship of the genre, had the audaciousness to perform an entire album of Bach sonatas on mandolin. Some folks are so multi-talented, you almost hate how good they are. In anticipation of the 25th anniversary of the band's inception, Nickel Creek set out last Summer to plan a few select gigs in commemoration, and decided to reunite for a new EP. That EP grew into a full-length album, and the result, the understatedly brilliant A Dotted Line feels less like a reunion, and more like a moment of time standing still.

Sure, the side-projects expanded their songwriting chops, but A Dotted Line doesn't scream, "See how much we've honed our craft" - it sounds like a group so comfortable in their own skin, that seven years apart seems like a weekend away. From the simple, last-call reverie of "Rest Of My Life" to the haunting break-up tune "Christmas Eve" (the saddest thing since the classic "Blue Christmas"), every note is carefully placed in just the right space to give ebb and flow to Thile's mandolin and the Watkins' twin-fiddle backup. Surprisingly, even guest turns by the likes of Meyer, and drummer Matt Chamberlain (Pearl Jam, Tori Amos, Brad Mehldau and Costello, among others) feel like extensions of the core trio, and add an extra fullness to their tasteful arrangements.

And this time, Nickel Creek gives musical shout-outs that make A Dotted Line pop-accessible without selling out: from the sweet, sad refrain reminiscent of Toad The Wet Sprocket on "Christmas Eve", to "Love of Mine" (which sounds like it was written with Alison Krauss and Union Station in mind) to their their covers of "Hayloft" (by Canadian indie-rockers Mother Mother) and Sam Phillips' "Where Is Love Now" (a twenty year old chestnut Phillips finally recorded for 2010's The Long Play project), Nickel Creek interpret disparate tunes, and make them sound as if part of their canon. In fact, the closest they come to showing off is on the instrumental "Elephant In The Corn", which is so free-spirited and spontaneous, you have to remind yourself you're not listening to a performance on A Prairie Home Companion (which Sara Watkins had the distinct honor of guest-hosting.)

But the most outstanding number here has got to be "You Don't Know What's Going On" - a bonafide bluegrass rocker (if such a thing ever existed.) From the sparse opening that quickly evolves into a call-and-response arrangement, to Thile's rapid-fire chorus ("To believe in her, to believe I could turn it around/To keep bailing out the water while the ship went down/To keep calling her name when we started to drown/You could tell me I should've known better...") it has got to be the most upbeat-sounding heartbreak song ever written. And then to bookend that with Sara's bittersweet rendition of Phillips' "Where Is Love Now" (the only other one who could've done it justice being Sam herself), Nickel Creek takes a sad song, and parses a twinge of optimism amidst the melancholy. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that A Dotted Line would be a return to form. We wouldn't expect anything less from these guys, and being true to their artistry, they confidently deliver the goods. Grade: A

The Pretty Reckless Going To Hell (Razor and Tie) -

Can't be easy being Taylor Momsen: I mean, all you wanna do is rock, and you're constantly dogged by critics who feel it imperative to mention that you rose to fame starring in the WB drama Gossip Girl. And then there's your modeling career, which includes being the face of Madonna's fashion line, Material Girl, and photo spreads ranging from Seventeen to Maxim, while still in your teens. Who should take you seriously as a rock'n'roll preistess? Indeed, there you are, on the cover for Going To Hell, the sophomore release from your band The Pretty Reckless, naked, back to the camera with a provocative arrow painted on and pointing to your nether regions. Girl, will you never learn?

Apparently not, and what's more refreshing, you could care less - you've struck a chord with a lot of a young women, thanks to your candor, passion and willingness to push the proverbial envelope. It's no wonder then, that "My Medicine" (from TPR's debut album, Light Me Up) resonated with your generation in a way "Smells Like Teen Spirit" couldn't: drug interactions, hallucinations, sexual experimentation, it's all there, and what the lyrics lack in complexity, your voice more than makes up for, conveying genuine teenage angst. In many ways, Going To Hell is a more confident follow-up than its predecessor, with Momsen's current lineup (guitarist Ben Phillips, bassist Mark Damon and drummer Jamie Perkins) fleshing out her confessional tone poems, while cheerfully mixing up old school hard rock with contemporary indie, alt-rock textures, so much so, only the learned among her fanbase will discern its aural influences.

Clearly, Momsen is no stranger to groups like The Runaways, Heart and Hole - bands fronted by a strong female lead singer (Joan Jett, Ann Wilson and Courtney Love, respectively), but there's also touches of Soundgarden's tortured introspection, STP's metal/glam and intriguingly, some KT Turnstall thrown in for good measure. The single, "Heaven Knows" flirts with STP's clever hooks and Jett's anthemic delivery (sample lyric: "Judy's in the front seat picking up trash/Living on the dough/Gotta make that cashWon't be pretty, won't be sweet/She's just in here on her feet...") "House On A Hill" begins with a simple acoustic guitar and Momsen observing, "Somewhere in the end of all this hate/There's a light ahead/that shines into this grave" before orchestral touches like timpani and strings kick in, tranforming it into a textbook power ballad, and I don't mean that perjoratively - it simply reveals a shrewd knack for song construction that can't denied.

I can think of no other artist who could pull off the propulsive "Sweet Things" (a dialogue with the devil, where Momsen acknowledges "evil making me its whore" amidt tribal drumming) veering into a Beatlesque U-turn, as guitarist Ben Phillips (channeling McCartney) croons "Hey there, little girl/Come inside, I've got some sweet dreams/Put your hair in curls/Paint you up just like a drag queen" except for maybe STP. But Momsen is also unafraid to share her naked angst on "Burn", where accompanied only by acoustic guitar, she bares her co-dependent soul ("Here comes the darkness, eating at my soul/I just wanna die here/But you wanted more/Maybe I will finally learn...") It's almost enough to make you forgive a misstep like "Why'd You Bring A Shotgun To The Party" - which might have worked without the cheesy sound effects and telegraphed lyrics ("You think, then you start to drink/Does it make you feel like a man?/It's not the size, we understand.")

Much better is the latest single, "F-ed Up World" - from it's driving snare-beat intro (recalling Magazine's "The Light Pours Out Of Me") to Momsen calling out "back door bitches" Jesus freaks, and horny males ("Litte boys bugging me on the bus/I don't know why you want to know me/You aint getting what you want") to the catchy "sex and drugs and guns/light a cigarette" refrain, it's everything a good rock song should be: rebellious, cheeky, riff-heavy, and infectious. And that pretty much sums up Going To Hell - love 'em or hate 'em, but The Pretty Reckless can't be concerned with your approval or dismissal. They know who their core audience is, and admittedly write for them. It's that loyalty, combined with some catchy melodies and Momsen's sometimes waifish, mostly throaty vocals that makes their songs work. It's too soon to say whether or not TPR's songs will stand the test of time, but Taylor Momsen knows it's only rock'n'roll. And she likes it. Grade B

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