Sean Watkins wears two hats: phenom flat-picking guitarist with the alt-bluegrass group Nickel Creek, and — just emerging now — gold standard indie-pop craftsman. When playing with mandolinist Chris Thile and fiddler Sarah Watkins (his sister) in Nickel Creek, he is perhaps the least flashy member of the group, though his solos fly and his songs are usually the sturdiest and hookiest in the band’s book. But in his solo recordings — of which Blinders On is the third and break-out best — Mr. Watkins emerges with goliath pop talent.
The latest album by Nickel Creek edged wonderfully toward the dynamics and richness of strong pop music. Playing for a young audience at DC’s 930 Club a few months ago, Mr. Thile smashed the barriers between bluegrass, alt-country and indie-pop with effortless charisma. But Blinders On, a vehicle for Mr. Watkins’ melodic virtue and less virtuosic voice, is more successful still. Distilling the bright melodicism of Nickel Creek with some of the experimental textures of recent recordings by Wilco and Andrew Bird, Mr. Watkins has created a certain gem. Simply put: I can’t stop listening to it.
Within Nickel Creek, Mr. Watkins’ half-muted voice is the least striking in the trio. But here, it is exactly right for a collection of songs about longing and regret that alternate between pastoral experimentalism and surging pop power. On songs like “Run Away Girl” and “I Say Nothing”, Mr. Watkins’ voice hides his emotion behind strong melodies and extremely fine arrangements — strings, piano, guitar, limited drums, but all of them deployed with remarkable economy. The punchier songs lift the voice up on equally clever but exuberant arrangement. For example, on the opening track, the verse sounds Nickel Creek-ish with its acoustic pop, but the chorus incorporates electric guitar and a genuine punch, even as Mr. Watkins layers the vocals with Brian Wilson care.
This opening track, “Summer’s Coming”, also evokes some of the experimental textures of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, with squiggles of synth and washes of processed guitar messing up the pop perfection just enough to make things interesting. And this is what gives Blinders On such power; it is deeply pleasant and charming, but it manages to surprise consistently. After the poppy snap of “Summer’s Coming”, the twinned fiddles and acoustic guitar solo of “Starve Them to Death” is a dodge back toward roots music — except that it’s all underlined with a funky little hip-hop drum pattern. Track three, “I’m Sorry”, zags another direction, with Jon Brion on piano and Glenn Kotche layering in a sweet vibes part in waltz time. And it’s gorgeous.
The signal achievement of this record, to me, is how it avoids being a “James Taylor Record for the New Century”. This, it seems to me, is what we might have expected (even hoped for) from Mr. Watkins, with his gorgeous acoustic guitar picking a strong melodic sense. But we already have a bevy of modern-day pop-folk balladeers. Instead, Blinders On is a weirder, bolder record. A song like “Roses Never Red” has a solid melody, sure, but it features a combination of string trio arrangement and a twinned distorted guitar solo. “They Sail Away” combines s JT-ish guitar with organ, toy xylophone, and overdubbed fiddles. Despite Jon Brion’s appearance on that one song, this stuff is less a Brion-esque massing of sounds and more like a precocious kid in the attic, just playing with cool stuff that can make music.
“Not That Bad/Blinder On” goes so far as to suggest a dash of electronica in its rhythmic attack, yet the other reference points are probably the Beach Boys and the Beatles. Mr. Watkins layers his wordless vocals like an expert but finds just enough opportunities to lace the proceedings with odd sounds, with feedback, and with electronic squeals. The final tune, “Whipping Boy”, is played completely by Sean, and it finishes a very compelling case for this bluegrass wunderkind as a non-mopey yet plenty-introspective indie-rock hero.
If you hang on at the end and let the final track play, a hidden track emerges: what sounds like a traditional bluegrass duet for cello and guitar that will blow you away. However far Blinders On may stray from Nickel Creek and Mr. Watkins’ traditional roots, the musician himself remains grounded. This record never sounds affected or like a self-conscious “departure”. Indeed, you get the sense that Sean Watkins has been making both kinds of music just about forever, and probably blending them all along too.
Blinders On suggests a degree of deliberate maturity that few songwriters or young performers have. Sean Watkins has it in spades, and his latest record is simply too good to be ignored.