A mutual admiration society is more intense than an acquaintance, but not as powerful as a friendship. It's sort of in between: You appreciate what you like about the other person, ignore what you don't, and disregard what you don't know with a casual shrug. Mutual Admiration Society (Sugar Hill), the new CD by Grammy-winning folk trio Nickel Creek and Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket, is sort of in between as well. It's a good record, but not a great one. The performers' obvious respect for one another gives the songs a friendly, off-the-cuff feel but creates an awkward restraint, like two people at a doorway each saying, "No, please, you first," and neither of them getting anywhere.
Rehearsed and recorded in just six days, the disc doesn't sound rushed so much as unfinished. Sadly, fans of Nickel Creek are likely to be disappointed here. The band is underutilized: Given no lead vocals to sing, they're employed primarily as Phillips' backing band. Their youthful exuberance could have injected some crucial energy into this project. Instead they sound disciplined and modest, keeping their cut-loose instincts in check out of respect for their elder. Back when the members of Nickel Creek were still in elementary school, Phillips was losing his religion in Toad the Wet Sprocket, a moderately successful "college rock" band caught in the wave following REM's Americana-pop breakthrough, Out of Time. On Toad's 1992 hit "Walk on the Ocean," Phillips graces the choruses with tasteful mandolin. Since Toad's breakup, Phillips has been hitting the summer circuits, playing solo acoustic shows and occasionally hooking up with other musicians.
Only the Mutual Admiration Society's final track, a winking cover of Harry Nilsson's "Think About Your Troubles," truly comes alive. The band turns the song—a wry, convoluted story about self-pity—into a scrappy shuffle. The song fades out, then fades back in to a furious mandolin solo from Nickel Creek's Chris Thile. This inspired bit of playing is exactly what the other songs needed, but as great as it is, it's too little too late.
You can expect much, much more from them at the Moore on Tuesday. Nickel Creek devour entire genres onstage, covering everything from Nirvana to Pavement to traditional Scottish folk songs to Nintendo theme music—all with pluck, charm, and a dizzying display of technical prowess. Phillips can be a bit stodgy, but I suspect Nickel Creek's enthusiasm will make him feel like a kid again. Cover songs will fly in from out of nowhere, the solos will dazzle, and the mutual admiration will be in full effect.
Mutual Admiration Society play the Moore Theatre at 8 p.m. Tues., July 27. $26.50.