Sean Watkins: Blinders On

A pop-folk gem from the Nickel Creek guitarist.

Sean Watkins

Blinders On

Label: Sugar Hill
US Release Date: 2006-03-14
UK Release Date: 2006-03-20
iTunes affiliate
Amazon affiliate

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.





90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.


Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.