Few aspiring bluegrass artists have tackled the genre as unpredictably as Nickel Creek. For their third offering, the precocious trio have ditched longtime producer Alison Krauss in favor of Tony Berg and Eric Valentine (Smash Mouth, Queens of the Stone Age, Good Charlotte), and quietly crafted one of the most explosive acoustic records of the year. Longtime fans who were mystified by Chris Thile's experimental 2004 solo release Deceiver may cock their collective heads in dismay, but those who appreciate the group's searing musicianship, orgasmic harmonies, and genre-bending arrangements will no doubt wear out their copies of Why Should the Fire Die? within the first month of ownership. Darker, colder, and infinitely more aggressive than their previous offerings, WSTFD is -- in spirit only -- the progressive bluegrass/folk-pop genre's reply to Radiohead's Kid A. "When in Rome," with its radio signal crackle and full-band boot stomps asks, "Where can a dead man go/A question with an answer only dead men know." It's a chilly way to open a record, but it's also a declaration of independence from three friends who have known nothing but the stage since they were in single digits, and are determined to meet their mid-twenties head on. There's a newfound penchant for percussion throughout WSTFD that's not nearly as invasive as purists might think. While the ferocious "Helena" is the only track that features actual drums, bassist Mark Schatz is veritable one-man drum corps, dropping sinister slides and buzz-filled ringers that when paired with Thile and Sean Watkins's mandolin/mandola/guitar work is pure analogue thunder. This combination is at its most effective on the moody Gillian Welch-meets-the Beach Boys majesty of the album's brooding centerpiece, "Eveline." A masterful display of dynamics, it blurs the line between pop, progressive rock, and country with a magic marker the size of Texas. Even the more traditional numbers like "Jealous of the Moon," "Can't Complain," and "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" -- the latter, sung by the honey-throated Sara Watkins, proves once and for all that Bob Dylan songs were placed on this earth to be interpreted by others -- are infused with the kind of electricity usually reserved for bands with vintage amplifiers and substance abuse problems. Why Should the Fire Die? is a brave album that warrants more than a passing glance from country and bluegrass purists, and the full support of the indie rock/folk/pop community.
AllMusic Review by James Christopher Monger