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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Artist; Sean Watkins
Label: Sugar Hill
Sean Watkins sometimes gets referred to as "the quiet one" in newgrass superpower Nickel Creek. This depiction is an unfair one, as Watkins' guitar and vocals provide the perfect companion to sister Sara's violin and mandolinist Chris Thile's histrionics. With Blinders On, Watkins proves that he can shine as a soloist as well, leaving Nickel Creek and expanding his musical horizons into some previously unheard areas.
California-raised Watkins pays homage to his roots with "Summer's Coming," an optimistic tune that name checks the Beach Boys, and employs some harmonies similar to that group. "I'm Sorry" features Jon Brion on piano and, not surprisingly, resembles Ben Folds in sound. More often, though, Watkins resembles Elliott Smith vocally ("Run Away Girl") or Nickel Creek bandmate Chris Thile ("Coffee," "No Lighter Windows").
When at home, Watkins often performs as part of a loose collective known as the Watkins Family Hour, which usually includes Gabe Witcher and Sara Watkins playing various stringed instruments. "Starve Them to Death," a stark tune about not letting his past rule his future, includes this lineup, as do several other tracks. "Roses Never Red" visits a similar theme, revealing Watkins' introspective nature.
"Happy New Year," a mostly instrumental piece, is an obvious homage to Radiohead, replete with industrial noise, drum machine effects, and several instruments, backed by Watkins' rhythm guitar. "Cammac" goes as far as possible in the other direction, a string quartet piece of his project The Garfield House.
"Hello…Goodbye" projects an entire relationship from beginning to end in thirty seconds and shows what a lonely imagination can conjure. "I Say Nothing" tells of unrequited love, making it obvious that the "he" of the song is smitten with an unknowing or uncaring "her."
If you're looking for Nickel Creek here, you're looking in the wrong place. Granted, there are elements here of that sound ("Starve Them To Death," "I'm Sorry"), but Sean Watkins does some exploration on Blinders On. The journey is a pleasant one musically and a pensive one lyrically. All in all, it's a worthwhile trip.
Brian A. Smith