Sean Watkins: 26 Miles

[14 August 2003]

By Jason MacNeil

As the lead guitarist and a key component of Nickel Creek, Sean Watkins ventured out into a solo career briefly with his debut album, Let It Fall. The album was not too far from Nickel Creek’s sound and the bluegrass album sold moderately well. Now Watkins has returned with an album that is far more colorful and uses a myriad of instruments. Whether it’s loops or rhythm samples or the bassoon or a string quartet, Watkins seems to be more confident and daring on this sophomore release.

Fans of Crowded House, Toad the Wet Sprocket or other melodic pop outfits will find the opening “On Ice” extremely soothing. From a melancholic singer-songwriter first verse, a series of keyboards and up-tempo shifts brings to mind the Beatles using a few tricks up their sonic sleeves. With sounds like a computer about to crash or an ancient computer processor, the song is a very decent start. The Gin Blossoms and also Michael Penn would be fair comparisons. “Chicago”, featuring Watkins on acoustic guitar, could be a sparse acoustic number but the XTC-like orchestration is its selling point. Jon Brion does some organ work on this tune, while Trip Sprague weaves touches of saxophone. “I want to give away the blues / And take the day away”, Watkins sings.

“Letters Never Sent” is a gorgeous singer-songwriter effort recalling Ron Sexsmith or Elliott Smith. Somber without being totally down, the formula shows Watkins hit fragile but delightful harmonies time after time. There are also hints of Watkins’ bluegrass style on the pleasing John Mayer-meets-Dave Matthews sound of “N.M.I.”. Consisting of a winding guitar with fiddles interjecting themselves, Watkins nails this song brilliantly, and he certainly gives himself enough time to perfect it at five minutes. “Hiding” recalls Ryan Adams if he’d spent too much time on his breakthrough album Gold. “Where are you hiding my little troll beneath the bridge”, Watkins sings with sweet harmonies à la the Connells. If there’s one drawback, the track stops abruptly.

“Through the Spring” shows the musician wearing a lot of influences on his sleeve, but the quality of these performances is hard to deny. Coming off a bit like Brian Wilson prior to his meltdown, Watkins asks why he should care about a girl who was never around for him. Just when he sets a great flow, he opts for another instrumental that adds little to the album. Funky more than the first instrumental, “Chutes & Ladders” is a jam band fanatic’s tune to the core. By the two-minute mark the song is virtually spent, resulting in three minutes of improvised blandness. It’s the one negative to the album, a habit of moving away from what works so well for Watkins.

“Take It Away” is a pop melody beefed up by a larger sound at times. The verses might be wordy, but when Watkins begins the chorus, it’s worth the wait. The harmonies on “Locking Doors”, featuring Sara Watkins, closely resemble Extreme’s hit “More Than Words”. It’s nearly that same synergy happening often on the number. Strings give it a polished, well-rounded effect as well. The title track was recorded in three different hotel rooms, and, unfortunately, it sounds like it was. Samples dominate the otherwise smart pop song as Watkins wears a brave face. The chorus, especially its elementary piano playing, is its only highlight.

Perhaps the most aggressive song is the fully realized pop rock of “Brick Window”. Paced at a higher tempo, Watkins and his band carry the music well despite some questionable keyboard effects. The bridge takes a strange detour before heading back to the relatively straight and narrow. Ending with the gorgeous “Carousel”, Watkins has ventured into unknown territory. This probably means expanding Nickel Creek’s sound for the future. A very good album that shows a talented musician minus the bluegrass factor.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/watkinssean-26miles/