Since the breakup of platinum-selling “newgrass” band Nickel Creek, it seems mandolin player Chris Thile has hogged the spotlight with his new band Punch Brothers. Meanwhile, fiddle player Sara Watkins quietly put out her own, self-titled solo record a couple of years ago, staying well within the bounds of country/bluegrass and drawing little attention.
Watkins’ sophomore album Sun Midnight Sun may change all that.
Within the first few seconds of the opening instrumental track, I knew this record was something different, something special. It begins with a single violin with a bit of distortion added, and descends into this rhythmic, multiple-part cacophony that is creative, dark and beautiful all at once. In the tracks that follow, it becomes apparent that this is a quantum leap beyond Watkins’ previous work. Sun Midnight Sun is far more than a bluegrass album; it is indie/alternative music rooted in Americana, rather than in pop or rock. The result is a highly creative collection of music that grabs your attention and holds it for the duration.
Sara Watkins also shines as a vocalist here; the soft, sweet, unassuming voice we heard in her self-titled record has expanded into a voice with strength, passion and range, at different moments reminiscent of Dia Frampton and Leigh Nash. As if to reinforce this new direction, Watkins’ friend Fiona Apple makes a guest appearance, harmonizing with Watkins on a manic cover of Everly Brothers’ “You’re the One I Love.”
This isn’t to say that Watkins has left her roots—not in the least. Open-minded country/bluegrass fans will find plenty to be happy about, especially when Watkins picks up her fiddle. Like I said, this music is rooted in Americana. It’s just that it doesn’t stay in the ruts; with the help of producer Blake Mills of Simon Dawes, Watkins builds on that foundation and creates something new and interesting out of it. It’s a sound that really is better heard than described.
All told, Sara Watkins has completely outdone herself with Sun Midnight Sun, and while there probably is nothing competitive going on, she’s effectively giving former bandmate Chris Thile a run for his money. This is a whole new thing, and a quantum leap forward. Get the record and listen to it. I’m serious.
ALBUM RATING: 5 Stars (out of five)