Nickel Creek's fiddler steps out on her own with her John Paul Jones-produced self-titled debut. It's a laid-back album that wisely focuses on her voice and her violin.
Nickel Creek started when its three members weren't yet teenagers and continued on for 18 years until the band went on indefinite hiatus at the end of their "Farewell for Now" tour in 2007. Apparently spending most of their adolescent and adult lives together necessitated a long break. The band's two male members, mandolin player Chris Thile and guitarist Sean Watkins, had each released multiple solo albums while Nickel Creek was active. But fiddler Sara Watkins is just now getting into the act with her self-titled solo debut. Rather than continue forward with the dark subject matter and musically complex style of Nickel Creek's excellent 2005 album Why Should the Fire Die?, Watkins has chosen to go laid-back with her disc. Sara Watkins features six covers among its 14 songs, and has a relaxed country-folk vibe running through it.
A lifetime of touring on the bluegrass circuit and beyond, plus several years of hosting an anything-goes LA club night called The Watkins Family Hour, seems to have given Sara Watkins the ability to call in a bunch of friends to play on her album. Produced by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, the disc features Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, both of her bandmates from Nickel Creek, and a whole bunch of Nashville session guys and bluegrass players. But since Nonesuch didn't see fit to provide me with a physical copy of the album with liner notes to reference, I've only got the music itself to go on here. So let's not worry about which guest star plays on which track and focus on Watkins herself.
The album opens with the beautifully harmonized, "All This Time", a gentle song about not being able to let go of an absent lover. A pedal steel guitar in the background quietly complements the vocals and adds just enough to emphasize the feeling of wistfulness in Watkins's voice. This is cannily followed by the stomping "Long Hot Summer Days", a John Hartford cover. Watkins's fiddle playing and vocals dominate the proceedings here, and despite the slow tempo, the song bristles with energy. Then she goes quiet again with "My Friend", another pretty song that really brings out her pure, clear singing voice.
The next song, the instrumental "Freiderick", is an upbeat instrumental that would fit right in on any of Nickel Creek's albums. Its mid-album companion piece "Jefferson" is the quickest song on the album, and the most traditional-sounding bluegrass song here, too. But that's about it for bluegrass on Sara Watkins. It seems clear that Watkins is ready to try something different from the bluegrass she grew up playing. The middle of the album is heavy on the covers, with four in a row, ranging from Jon Brion ("Same Mistakes") to Jimmie Rodgers ("Any Old Time") to Tom Waits ("Pony"). Watkins's treatment of these songs smooths out most of their edges and makes them fit with her easygoing style. Beyond some of the lyrics, you wouldn't know that they aren't her own tunes.
That stylistic unity is as much a weakness as it is a strength, though. There are differences between each song on the album, but they're subtle. A casual listen yields little reaction beyond "slow country song here, mid-tempo country song here, nice voice." Watkins is a terrific singer, and the twelve songs with vocals here showcase her voice very effectively. Musically, though, it sounds a bit bland the first few times through. It isn't until one starts to dig into the material that the charms of the songs on Sara Watkins start to reveal themselves. Besides the album-opening duo of "All This Time" and "Long Hot Summer Days" and the electrified cover of David Garza's "Too Much" near the end, nothing jumps out right away. And that's fine, because it seems to indicate that Watkins has a lot more to give. Hopefully, she will continue to grow and come into her own as a songwriter and solo artist. This is a solid debut album compiled from years of playing and absorbing music, but it feels like a warm-up for what's to come later.