The Library is a recurring feature here at Sketchy Details where I take an in-depth look at a song I think could fit in nicely with anyone's music collection. Nickel Creek was an acoustic folk trio comprised of Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins. The group, sadly, disbanded in 2007 to pursue outside projects. However, the four albums of progressive acoustic music, or Newgrass, they released are some of the most intriguing albums of original folk music to come out in recent memory.
Their biggest crossover single was "When in Rome," a moody bluegrass track all about tone. The lyrics are rhetorical and broad. The band questions the disillusioned state of a sick man and teacher before wondering how the dead respond to the contemporary world. If there is a flaw in the song, it is that the lyrics are perhaps a bit too driven by angst and lacking in focus. The song is focused on what society has become without speculating as to the cause or reach or the problems.
Good thing the draw of this song is not the lyrics but the underlying composition. Nickel Creek, at their absolute best, are incredible instrumentalists. It's hard to think of another contemporary mandolin player who matches the technical skills and artistry of Chris Thile. The mandolin is not an easy instrument and Thile makes it look like child's play.
Sara Watkins is a beautifully expressive fiddle player. Her technique brings out the sweetness of the instrument without becoming too flashy. There's a time and a place for raucous passages of fast finger work and Watkins chooses not to push too hard.
Sean Watkins serves as a strong foundation for Nickel Creek. He rarely gets to show off as much as Sara or Chris, but what he does is solid. The band rarely uses actual percussion, which means the guitar becomes the foundation of everything.
Together, the trio forms a tight ensemble of relaxed and accomplished musicians. Their approach to music is effortless, even if their compositions are complex and inventive. Too many instrumentalists use the difficulty of a song as an excuse not to engage with an audience. Nickel Creek just felt natural and relaxed on record or in person, making it easy to connect with their music.
"When in Rome" is no exception. The driving pulse of the song is not the slap on the acoustic guitar but rhythmic interplay between the mandolin and the guitar. The composition builds to an explosion of counterpoint at the chorus. Chris Thile takes one melodic line as the vocalist, Sara Watkins takes another on the fiddle, and Sean Watkins pulls the whole thing together on the guitar. Even without Sean and Sara's vocal harmonies and Chris' mandolin playing, "When in Rome" would be a solid composition. With it, the effect is enchanting.
Will you be adding "When in Rome" to your music library? Sound off below.