In Brief: Short but sweet easily trumps long-winded and boring. In light of a solo debut that almost made me a non-fan, Watkins’ sophomore album wins the “most improved” award.
Sara Watkins sure knows how to thwart my expectations. Given that she was the lone female in the “newgrass” trio Nickel Creek, wielding an instrument whose sound I loved intrinsically, I became somewhat enamored with her meek, earnest vocals and especially with her proficiency on the fiddle. So when the group split up and everyone ventured out into the world of solo careers, naturally her solo debut was the one that I anticipated the most. Her brother Sean Watkins had taken that leap before even leaving the band, as had the furiously prolific Chris Thile, and that made sense, for these two did the bulk of the band’s songwriting work. Sara’s point of view, unfiltered by the others, was the biggest unknown for this listener. But when she finally managed to get a solo album out in 2009, it turned out to be a rather massive disappointment. Despite piling up a healthy amount of indie cred by signing with Nonesuch Records and picking subversive sources like Tom Waits for her cover songs, and despite how much she wowed me supporting her brother’s new band Fiction Family in a stellar live set, Sara Watkins was dead on arrival. The whole approach seemed so traditional and risk-free, and her violin was woefully absent from a number of sleepy folk and country songs that did very little to distinguish themselves. Her cover of John Hartford‘s “Long Hot Summer Days” was a blast, or at least her part in it was – even on that track, her backing band sounded rather lethargic. The rest of the album was quickly relegated to the bin of “Stuff I Rarely Listen to”, and pulling it out again recently hasn’t improved my opinion. Needless to say, I didn’t expect much of anything good from Sara in the future unless it was a collaboration.
When I heard she had a second album on the way, entitled Sun Midnight Sun, a quick glance at the track list told me most of what I thought I needed to know. Only ten tracks, two of them instrumentals and two of them under two minutes long, seemed like she was aiming for some sort of a bare minimum of content. So I went in with no expectations whatsoever. Maybe I’d find those one or two tracks where she whipped out the violin and I could catch a glimpse of nostalgia for a band that parted ways far too soon in their career. But surely this wouldn’t end up being memorable as an album overall. Right?
Well, much to my surprise, Sara has managed to create an enchanting little album that runs the gamut between folk, pop, and country while even leaving a little bit of space for sonic experimentation. The lean amount of content, likely a response to the long-windedness of her first album, unfortunately keeps it out of the highest range of grades that I could give it, but it’s a fun and sometimes even beautiful way to spend 35 minutes. What’s most important is how Sara manages to pull off the balancing act between pleasing a crowd full of folks like me who expect references to her glory days in Nickel Creek, and changing up the mood or sound of a song to prove there’s more to her than just a pretty face and a fiddle. Several songs are accented nicely by her violin, but few are thoroughly dependent on the instrument, often relying on acoustic and sometimes even electric guitar, perhaps even a banjo here and there, to get the job done. There’s a much better balance of gentle and more up-tempo material, so it plays a lot more like an album and less like a compilation of disjointed ideas. Sun Midnight Sun just has more going on for it, even in its quietest moments – it has color in places where her first album too easily settled for monochrome.
The lyrics shouldn’t be too surprising here, in that they focus on the happy peaks and sad troughs of relationships, like many country albums do. I would write this off as a generic approach, if not for the personality that exudes from songs at both end of the spectrum. Her cheery voice is used to great effect on the bounciest, poppiest songs, while her meek, pensive approach on the sadder stuff invites empathy: “How could anyone break this poor girl’s heart?”, I find myself wondering. One well-chosen cover tune even comes across as angry, which is something I thought she’d never pull off considering that the few songs she helped write for Nickel Creek’s Why Should the Fire Die? (an album all about fractured relationships) came across as more ironic than outright furious. Sun Midnight Sun isn’t a perfectly complete package that rolls all of these elements up into a story with a beginning, middle, and an end, but it adds several tools to her palette that I’m willing to bet she’ll put to good use on a longer and more engrossing record in the future. Consider this album a modest but meaningful stepping stone in a career that just took a strong turn in a promising direction.
1. The Foothills
Sara opens her album with a rip-roaring bluegrass instrumental, as if to sneer, “So there! Happy now?” at folks like me who were displeased with the lack of such things on her previous album. At less than two minutes, it’s really just a sample of something that Sara is really good at doing, but is probably getting tired of doing compared to their other forms of musical explore she’s clearly itching to explore. Just to change things up, there’s a muddy programmed rhythm that sounds like the galloping of horses, and a banjo where you might have expected acoustic guitar and mandolin.
2. You and Me
An unexpected, but welcome, left turn into bouncy pop territory results in one of the most attention-grabbing moments on the album. As her brother Sean leading the way with a tasty acoustic guitar riff, and a conspicuously chunky rhythm track kicks in, you might find yourself involuntarily bobbing your head. Sara’s voice follows her brother’s riff, the two locking together in an irresistibly memorable melody as she sings, most appropriately, about fondly remembering good times shared with someone she loves. The mish-mash of genres works because the beat is catchy without sounding like a misguided attempt to be street-smart, and the lyrics are filled with the colors of a long, rolling countryside – dusty roads and fields of flowers and someone’s old piano barely audible in the distance. Perhaps my favorite moment on the entire album is when she effortlessly sneaks a line from the hymn “In the Garden” into the verse melody – “And the joy we shared as we tarried there…” It sounds so natural, like the entire song flowed out of it, and it adds a curious layer of religious devotion to an otherwise innocuous love song.
3. You’re the One I Love
One of the odd friendships that Sara’s managed to strike up over the years of dabbling in the indie rock world is that of Fiona Apple, whose quirky, dusky vocals are paired with Sara’s on this furious cover of an Everly Brothers song. They milk the two-part harmony for all it’s worth here, taking an earnest duet originally designed to make 60s-era teenaged girls swoon, and turning it into a frantic rollercoaster ride, as if the band was recording on a runaway train or someone really needed to go to the bathroom or something. The effect is haunting – as the acoustic guitars nervously rattle along and the two ladies are singing the words “Come to me… tenderly…” over and over, it sounds anything but tender. The abrupt ending that it comes to, just shy of the two minute mark, seems almost cruel. They could have made so much more out of this, but to be fair, it was normal for pop songs to be pretty short in this tune’s golden years, so they’re mostly remaining true to the source, just speeding it up a bit.
4. When It Pleases You
SCREEEEEEEEEECH! That’s either the sound of the aforementioned runaway train slamming on its breaks, or the decidedly whiny melody that comes from Sarah’s violin, a recurring motif of this uncharacteristically cranky song. It’s one hell of a change in momentum for an album that was just breezing along up until this point, and it’s sure to be a divisive subject for some of Sarah’s fans, but I’ve actually found it to be a highlight. As if to remind us that this is not strictly a folk record, Sean Watkins keeps the rhythm with a surprisingly grumbly electric guitar. That, and the conspicuously loud snare and hi-hat sounds coming from the drums, give us the closest thing to alternative rock that Sara’s ever attempted. Fittingly, this song was written by Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson. Here, Sara guilt-trips a man to seemingly no end, for only wanting her around when it’s convenient for him. I’m sure many of us have been in those kind of relationships, where the other person’s rather non-committal, and only really into it as a sort of default mode when they can’t think of anything more interesting to do. Sara’s sweet voice may sound ill-suited for this sort of irritated ultimatum at first, but its the way her sweet voice comes to those loud, frustrated, but still melodic crescendos that I actually find quite compelling. What’s weird is that the song’s instrumental outro, while it is a pleasing combination of fiddle, percussion, and melodic acoustic guitar, stretches the track out to nearly seven minutes, which is longer than the first three tracks combined. It’s quite a gamble, and I can tell that for some folks, this track is going to be an albatross that drags the entire album down, so I’m thankful that the experiment at least worked for me.
5. Be There
Out of the 8 songs on this disc that actually have lyrics, this is the one that doesn’t quite do it for me. It means well, with its earnest lyrics, written as an apology to someone she wishes she could be safe and sound at home with. She pleads for him to not give up on the relationship just because of the distance between them, and there’s a subtle sadness to the melody that makes me think Court Yard Hounds could have done something sublime with it. The production just isn’t doing the song any favors – for lack of a better word, it feels “watery”. If there’s any fiddle here, or mandolin, or anything twangy for that matter, it’s buried under a layer of reverb. The melody pokes along in a slow rhythm of 6/8, making the song too easily comparable to a better one that’s going to show up just a few tracks later. I’d take this one over most of Sara’s self-titled disc any day, but it’s still a weak spot on this album.
6. I’m a Memory
Sara’s next cover choice is a pretty old-school one: Willie Nelson. Now I’m not really up on my country music history, so this may be a load of hogwash, but I’ve always imagined Willie Nelson as the yin to Johnny Cash‘s yang, as if the two could have been in a buddy cop movie together where Cash was the no-nonsense, scary cop and Nelson was the comic relief sidekick who made up his own rules and frequently got the duo into trouble. Anyway, setting aside my weird imagination, this tune’s got the sort of melody to it that makes me want to go “Whee!” whenever Sara gets the chorus. It’s another exercise in using simple ingredients to great effect, as the verses set her up to be a flicker of passion from someone’s past, a plan for the sort of future that once seemed like it would last forever, but now only comes back to some guy’s mind on rare fleeting occasions, whenever he wants to reminisce about the good old days. There’s a sense of sadness to the lyrics, but you wouldn’t know it from the huge high note that the chorus comes careening down from: “CLOOOOOOOOOOSE your eyes, I’m a memory!” An upbeat fiddle solo in the middle of the song mimics this melodic phrase, easily turning it into another of the most attention-grabbing tracks on the album.
Better integration of Sara’s violin into the sort of sad melody that only a country ballad could muster is what makes this tune a highlight over the similarly mopey “Be There”. The effect is that it comes across like an extended, lovelorn sigh as Sarah philosophizes over whether she’s woman enough to really give love unselfishly, and whether someone out there could ever be man enough to love her back with that same amount of fervor. The simple combination of violin, acoustic guitar and piano does wonders for the melancholy melody, which has these brief little flourishes that seem to let the sunlight in, only to fall back into the same sense of resignation that they started with. This is the kind of song you’d cry in your beer to, not over a relationship you just lost, but over one that one or both of you never had the courage to get started in the first place.
8. The Accord
No, this isn’t a song about a car. Well, I suppose it could be, but the title leaves a lot to the listener’s imagination, since this is the album’s other instrumental track. It has the sort of mood that I find myself wanting to describe as “sneaky”, with lots of tentative, plucked notes and a minor-key melody that sort of tiptoes along. The bass line is classic country, moseying up and down between two notes to compliment each chord, but the overall execution is much more exploratory than show-offy. There are some interesting bits as Sara weaves her way through this one, but nothing about it really screams for attention, so in that sense it’s sort of like the instrumental tracks on her previous album, which were pleasant but which didn’t seem to beg me for repeat plays.
9. Lock & Key
The most beautifully written of Sara’s songs comes along here, and it’s such an effortlessly beautiful folk ballad that it almost feels like you could throw in a little mandolin to compliment her fiddle and Sean’s acoustic guitar, and it would be a long-lost song of heavy-hearted relationship woes that should have made the cut for Why Should the Fire Die? The lyrics feel exceptionally personal, as Sara recounts specific landmarks from her relationship with the man she married, including a midsummer proposal, and then later, a dark, stormy period that tested their commitment to each other. Finger-picked acoustic guitar compliments her wistful melody gracefully, and she works in small bits of fiddle in between the verses, purposefully letting her instrument take a backseat until the breathtaking bridge, where Sean goes into the sort of “rhythm player” mode that Chris Thile would often fulfill on Nickel Creek’s more bluegrassy tunes during a sweet Sara solo. It’s like the best of both worlds, containing generous hints of the Watkins siblings’ past while emphasizing Sara’s point of view as an all-grown-up solo artist. The outcome of the song is quietly tragic – her devotion never wavers as she steadfastly insists “My heart is under lock and key”, but it’s never really indicated whether the husband in this story comes back around after his heart strays. This gives the song a bit of an unresolved ending as its closing strains of fiddle bleed into the intro to the album’s final track.
10. Take Up Your Spade
I’d have mistaken this one for a cover of some old Southern Gospel song or something, if not for the liner notes telling me it was an original. With its simple melody slowly plucked out by a banjo, acoustic guitar, and what might be a glockenspiel or some instrument like that which invokes the quiet grandeur of several 21st century “indie folk” revivalists, it just feels like the kind of thing that Sara might have plucked out of the 19th century and polished off as a sort of restrained closing hymn for her album. The message is simple – Wake up, seize the day, plow the ground that’s yours to plow, be thankful for what opportunities you have, and shake the past off and leave it behind. It’s the voices singing in unison and the “agricultural” language of it that make it feel like a new spin on an old relic, even though it isn’t. It’s a peaceful and hopeful way to end the album, as if to say we will all one day reap the rewards of the love that we have sown, even if we’re not seeing the rewards here in this lifetime.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Foothills $1
You and Me $1.75
You’re the One I Love $1.25
When It Pleases You $1.50
Be There $.50
I’m a Memory $1.50
The Accord $.75
Lock & Key $1.75
Take Up Your Spade $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.