The trajectory of a band’s catalog is often what best-of collections aim to map out. And, because several albums’ worth of material — and therefore a large span of years — tend to comprise these types of catch-all albums, or boxed sets, the band’s progression is unusually easy to hear: the growth from youth to maturity, from acoustic to electric, from metal to free-form jazz. In this way, the band’s legacy is honored; the curator’s intentions as well.
Nickel Creek’s entrance into the canon is Reasons Why (The Very Best), and it’s a fine collection. Twelve tracks are from the band’s three studio albums, two are decent live songs, and there’s a DVD of fine videos. But Reasons Why, despite the strength of each song (all are exceptional), is a disappointment, because Nickel Creek, the Grammy Award-winning Southern Californian acoustic trio that in only three studio albums essentially created and defined a genre — it incorporates bluegrass, country, folk, funk, jazz and rock but is none of these things — is not a fine band. It is innovative. It is exceptional.
In the spirit of diplomacy, songs are divided almost equally — four from the 2000 self-titled album, three from 2002’s This Side, and five from 2005’s Why Should the Fire Die? Those listening for the aforementioned progression might have a hard time; Nickel Creek has always been innovative and genre-defying; the metered seduction of This Side‘s “I Should’ve Known Better” came three years before last year’s funky stomper “When in Rome,” and both of those tracks, as well as “The Fox” (off Nickel Creek), equally display the prodigious talent and dedication of mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarist Sean Watkins and fiddler Sara Watkins. And “Smoothie Song,” off This Side, still remains one of the most technical and funky melodies I’ve heard, a perfect introduction and encapsulation of Nickel Creek.
But that’s the problem. In trying to tightly package this band, it’s almost a disservice. Sure, there’s “Jealous of the Moon” (from Why Should the Fire Die?, but what about “Best of Luck,” to hear the real fuse Sara Watkins is capable of lighting as a singer? Or why “This Side,” but no “Young”? We know Thile can play, but let’s hear some passion in that voice. And the second CD of videos is a nice addition, but I mention them in passing because that’s what they amount to; for a band that relies so much on spirited improvisation and technical instrumental interplay, glossy studio videos just don’t fit.
The truth is, fans are hard to please, and this collection is a fine introduction, but it’s all surface level. Perhaps this is the trouble with any best-of collection: their legacy, short so far as it may be, is still too respected to be properly showcased in one album. Listen to all of Nickel Creek’s albums. You’ll hear what I mean. And pick up Thile and Watkins’s solo albums, too. It’ll lend credence to the fact that three phenomenal talents deserve more than this “very best of” compilation can offer.