Since the announcement of the “indefinite hiatus” of progressive acoustic darlings Nickel Creek, despite a history of diverging solo work, releases from Chris Thile and Sean Watkins have been shackled by expectations of a Creek-like sound. Much like releases from her former band mates, Sara Watkins’ self-titled debut is not a surrogate Nickel creek album. Instead, it is an album that is purely individual, combining the talent that we have already witnessed with more than a few surprises.
Opening with “All this Time,” a rolling country tune driven by pedal steel and the familial blending of Sean Watkins on background vocals, we are treated to a contemporary cut that draws heavily on traditional country sounds. Other successful uses of pedal steel include a smoky rendition of Tom Waits’ “Pony,” and “Any Old Time,” a Jimmie Rodgers song, performed as western swing.
Produced by John Paul Jones, the album continues with a collection, which while grounded in bluegrass and country, is as complex and eclectic as the guests that play on it. Among the artists making appearances are bluegrass artists Rayna Gellert, Ronnie McCoury, Tim O’Brien, and Chris Eldridge; Americana artist Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings; and former Nickel Creek band mates Chris Thile and Sean Watkins.
Through covers and original songs, with the exception of the overly slick “Too Much,” each song easily meshes with the next despite its range. There is the hauntingly elegant “Bygones,” with its genre-bending beauty; the energetic “Long Hot Summer Days,” a melding of blues, folk, and bluegrass; and the subtly presented “Give me Jesus,” a traditional song arranged by Sara and Chris Thile. While Watkins was not a major writing contributor to Nickel Creek, she is the sole writer of six of the fourteen tracks for this project.
The album also includes two instrumental tracks. “Freiderick,” as well as “Jefferson,” the former co-written by the two Watkinses and the latter composed by Sara alone, are capable instrumentals with a heavy Celtic influence. It should be noted that the mandolin on both tracks is played by Ronnie McCoury, avoiding a Nickel Creek reunion that—while intriguing–no doubt would have only distracted from the album.
Sara Watkins’ debut is new and refreshing; it is a blending of retro flavors that remains contemporary, while avoiding the manufactured nostalgia that so often creeps into both Nashville and alt-country music.
I completely agree, in fact my review echoes many of the major points of your review, even though I just saw you posted yours! It’s a very entertaining album, and I’m glad she can make great music on her own.
Great singer, great album.
Nice review! I look forward to giving this a spin when I get the chance. I really haven’t been good about keeping up with any of their solo outings.
Chris: Glad to hear others feel the same about her debut. I’ll stop by and read your review.
Dan: Thanks. I definitely think it is worth checking out. I think of the solo work coming out from Nickel Creek members, this is possibly the most enjoyable as an album. The others work is great as well, but this really holds together well as an album.
I wondered what we’d get from Sara, since she’s been the more quiet Nickel Creek member. I’ll have to admit that I hoped for something good, but I can’t say that I expected it to be this good. And the fact that she wrote a good portion of the album just makes it sweeter, since I didn’t know she was much of a songwriter, as Thile and Shawn had most of the credits.
So far, this is the best album I’ve heard this year.
Why can’t albums like this be the Amazon deal of the day?
Great review, William!
I should add that Sara sings lead on two of my favorite Nickel Creek songs – “Reasons Why” and “Anthony” – and shares lead on another fave, “Speak.” I’m very partial to Chris Thile, but he was one of three great talents in that band.
“Anthony” is lots of fun with the ukulele (which shows up on this album once as well). Some people didn’t enjoy it, but despite being different I thought it was a very standout song. Chris D. pointed out in his review that she wrote it which I didn’t remember.
Yeah, I had remembered reading an interview with her where she shared that that was the only Nickel Creek song she had written, that Chris and Sean got her into writing right at the end if Nickel Creek.
Kevin, “Reasons Why” is one of my all time favorite Nickel Creek songs too, up there with “When In Rome” and “This Side”.
Is the duet “Reno” not on her album? :(
No, that’s on Alex Woodard’s album.
I failed to mention my appreciation for the line about manufactured nostalgia. That’s one of my pet peeves about current country music, both “mainstream” and “alternative.”
Listened to this album after a friend raved about it endlessly. Yes, it is definitely something “new and refreshing” and I particularly liked Bygones. Sufficiently inspired now to buy the vinyl version as well… !