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Sara Watkins (Self-titled)
Label: Nonesuch Records
Time: 14 Tracks / 49 mins
The progressive bluegrass trio Nickel Creek are currently on hiatus (having been together since before they were teenagers, they deserve a break). Last year saw Sean Watkins team up with Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman as Fiction Factory, but now comes fiddler and vocalist Sara Watkins’ solo debut. Also following last year’s pundit-rousing collaboration between Robert Plant and bluegrass singer Alison Krauss, it feels very right and now that this album is produced by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.
Much of the disc is comfortably slow-paced. If it leads to a good atmosphere, that is something I often love. Here, though, I got the feeling that the disc needed a bit of a spark especially as many of the highlights are more energetic tracks. “Long Hot Summer Day” is the song that betrays John Paul Jones’ experience. Had Plant sung this stomp, it would sit right at home on Led Zep III. Two of the best four are instrumentals: the light, bouncy, Irish-influenced bluegrass of “Freiderick” gives turns to fiddle, mandolin and guitar; while the faster and more American “Jefferson” is a chance for Watkins to shine on fiddle. The fourth standout track is another of the self-penned works, the lovely closer, “Where Will You Be,” which has Watkins gently singing poetic lyrics to her lover over a so-slow resonating electric guitar.
Coming close are the dreamy prayer “My Friend” and “Lord, Won’t You Help Me,” where some judicious harmonies add some warmth to a track that I could hear Buddy Miller singing, should the country urge take him. Guitarist Jon Brion’s “Same Mistakes” is a real grower, where her brother’s harmonies add just the right emphasis to a superbly written song.
Otherwise, where the pace dips, often so can the interest. It’s not that there are bad songs – except “All of the Time” and “Bygones,” which are plain mournful and get on my nerves – there just isn’t quite the extra oomph that makes the disc compelling. It strikes me that the ones I least like are those where the pedal steel has a prominent part and dates the sound somewhat, so fans of that instrument can add an extra tock.
This really should delight Nickel Creek fans, as Sean Watkins plays on many tracks, Chris Thile also makes an appearance and many songs have a strong appeal. John Paul Jones, who plays a fair bit of bass, has ensured that this disc has no clutter, leaving the supporting instruments the chance to be heard clearly without hogging the spotlight.