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Quick Spins: The Afghan Whigs, Nickel Creek, The Both

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 22, 2014 4:10PM

Two of our favorite bands make welcome returns and a highly anticipated duo makes good on the promise they showed at last year's Hideout Block Party.

2014_4_17_nickelcreek.jpg Nickel Creek: A Dotted Line (Nonesuch Records)The celebrated trio of mandolinist Chris Thile, violinist Sarah Watkins and brother, guitarist Sean Watkins, kept busy after they declared a hiatus in 2009. Sarah Watkins forged a solo career and toured with the likes of Jackson Browne and the Decemberists. Sean Watkins formed Fiction Family with Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman. Thile easily had the highest profile with his band Punch Brothers, released an album of sonatas and partidas by Johann Sebastian Bach performed on mandolin, and earned a MacArthur Foundation fellowship.

A Dotted Line, Nickel Creek's first album since 2005's Why Should The Fire Die?, finds the group reforming with the ease of slipping on a comfortable old pair of shoes, enjoying each other's presence and playing with a laconic feel and little signs of the virtuosity that informed their early years as child prodigies on the national bluegrass scene. The music and musicians serve the songs here with neither a sense of urgency nor a pressing need to remind the listener of past glories. That's a good thing but may not be a comfort to fans accustomed to fleet-fingered runs of past hits like "Smoothie Song" and "Ode to a Butterfly." Instead, the beginning maturity of young adulthood is present throughout A Dotted Line. The lead single "Destination" could easily have announced their hiatus; here, it harkens their arrival with the trio singing "I'm moving on to where I belong." Other tracks like "Christmas Eve" and "Love of Mine" continue the lazy feel. It's only on the instrumentals "Elsie," "Elephant in the Corn," "You Don't Know What's Going On" and a cover of Mother Mother's "Hayloft" where Nickel Creek shows signs of catching fire. Still, this is a great album for lying about the house on a day with no plans.

Nickel Creek plays the Riviera Theatre May 9 and Taste of Chicago July 11.

2014_4_17_afghanwhigs.jpg The Afghan Whigs: Do to the Beast (Sub Pop Records)
Between The Twilight Singers and The Gutter Twins, Greg Dulli has stayed busy in recent years and kept his dangerous Lothario act sharpened to a razor hone. While there was no clamoring for an Afghan Whigs reunion it's nice to see the band back with a roar, if not a vengeance, on the label where they got their start. Do to the Beast, The Afghan Whigs' first album in 16 years, opens with power chords and Dulli declaring "if they seen 'em all, show 'em something new" with his patented blend of sex and menace. The harrowing "It Kills," with its lilting piano, guest vocals from Van Hunt and Dulli pleading "I should have known better when I caught you wild: you were incredible" let the listener know Dulli and company are walking the fine line between the band's high-water mark of Congregation and Gentlemen and the Rust Belt soul of 1965. "Algiers" sounds like a cross between Nick Cave and Ennio Morricone.

Fans hoping for a reunion of the classic Afghan Whigs lineup will be disappointed. Drummer Steve Earle isn't around and guitarist Rick McCollum, who toured with the Whigs during their 2012 reunion tour, has been ostracized for personal problems. But bassist John Curley and many of the musicians who back Dulli in Twilight Singers, including the indispensable guitarist Dave Rosser, are on board. There is some overlap between the more theatrical elements of Twilight Singers and the wounded soul music of the Whigs, but Do to the Beast is more muscular than Dulli's Twilight Singers efforts, which is enough for me. But it's Dulli who not only stirs the drink here, but makes up most of the main ingredients and he's in fine form here. His voice, in particular, hasn't sounded this good in years.

2014_4_17_theboth.jpg The Both: The Both (SuperEgo Records)
The duo of Aimee Mann and Ted Leo was one of my highlights from last year's A.V. Fest/Hideout Block Party. Mann's meticulously crafted pop songs meshed perfectly with the brawn of Leo's punk sensibility and their evident chemistry and humor had the crowd hanging on every syllable of banter between them.

On The Both's eponymous debut Mann and Leo continue to complement each other. Leo is reminded to sing harmony vocals and write melodies that fit Mann and lyrics that aren't politically charged while Mann picks up the pace, sheds the maudlin tendencies of her solo work and is able to keep up with Leo's (lower) frenetic energy. The result is one of the best records of the early year. Leo's harmonies on "You Can't Help Me Now" is a prime example. "Voices of America" sees Leo dialing back his penchant for verbosity, while the harmonies between he and Mann are on full display.

The rocking "Milwaukee" is another example of Mann and Leo working together for a greater whole, with Mann's fuzz bass anchoring the backbeat and Leo firing off solos to create four-plus minutes of lightning in a bottle.