August 19, 2002 12:00 PM

Nickel Creek (Sugar Hill)

Having laid down bluegrass roots with their 2000 debut, this Southern California trio now sounds more like bland, ’60s-’70s folk-pop (think the Association, or Peter, Paul and Mary). While there is some nimble work by Sara Watkins on fiddle and Chris Thile on mandolin, bouzouki and guitar, This Side is dominated by the wispy, treacly vocals of siblings Sara and Sean Watkins. Although the disc was produced by the Queen Bee of Bluegrass, Alison Krauss, there are some peculiar choices of material, from the bizarrely tasteless “Spit on a Stranger” to the Celtic-sounding “Sabra Girl,” a tune originally recorded by the Irish group Planxty (under the title “Time Will Cure Me”). At their best they set up a Bachian counterpoint that elevates their music. But too often Nickel Creek merely evokes images of girls in long, gauzy white dresses and scruffy guys in overalls meandering around a Renaissance fair.

Bottom Line: Not their best side

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