Sara Watkins’ first “solo” album is a pretty, poignant collection of acoustic-based songs that have a broad appeal. Sure to enchant fans of Watkins’ wildly popular former band Nickel Creek, the eponymous album covers all the bases of modern mass-appeal acoustic music. Watkins and a huge list of performers go out of their way to make sure everyone is included here. But you can’t please everyone all of the time, so the all-inclusive ethos alternately works for and against the album.
There are plenty of please-your-momma ballads, like Watkins’ slightly saccharine “My Friend” and Jon Brion’s forlorn “Same Mistakes.” Traditional acoustic devotees will love the covers of Jimmie Rodgers (“Any Old Time”) and Norman Blake (“Lord Won’t You Help Me”), and those with broader musical interests will identify with Watkins’ mellifluous take on Tom Waits’ “Pony” and her sultry reading of John Hartford’s “Long Hot Summer Days.”
Watkins ably employs spooky Appalachian violin and tense vocal harmonies on her own “Bygones,” which stands as a stark counterpoint to her more accessible tendencies. There’s an air of authenticity to the song that sternly addresses the listener, making it known that Watkins hasn’t forgotten or discarded her roots, despite the divergent styles on the album.
Listeners with diverse tastes will appreciate appearances by players as varied as former Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg, Watkins’ former bandmates Sean Watkins and Chris Thile, Mark Schatz, and John Paul Jones. Jones, who produced the album, turns up on backing vocals, bass, mandolin, piano, and organ throughout the affair. Names like Jones, Ronnie McCoury and Tim O’Brien are most luminous in text, however, as Watkins truly touches every inch of the record. The many famous guests do a remarkable job of letting her songs and arrangements shine.
Through the ever-present bluegrass, traditional, and gospel influences shine rays of pop, jazz, and country. Tracks “Jefferson” and “Friederick” channel a melodically sophisticated instrumental style of modern bluegrass that hinges on group movement and strategic solos, much like jazz. David Garza’s “Too Much” is a radio-friendly pop island in an otherwise understated sea of balladry, and “Will You Fall” imagines Watkins as indie songstress turned mountain girl.
Depending on the listener’s tastes, varying degrees of satisfaction will be found with this album. The heaving closer “Where Will You Be” and some of the mushier moments, like “My Friend” and “All This Time,” left me wanting more amped-up traditionalism and instrumental fireworks. It’s definitely an album with something to fit almost any mood or demographic within the realm of acoustic music. If one track doesn’t run to your tastes, change is just a skip away.
Rating: 7.7 out of 10