Sara Watkins can play a fiddle. There's no doubt about that. The word "prodigy" has been heaved at her in print a few times, but that's what happens when you start your career young and show up hauling a ton of raw talent. As one third of the bluegrass trio Nickel Creek, she started her career as a teenager, sawing through tunes which helped introduce and endear a younger generation to the old school.
She also had a hand in pushing and shoving that genre into a new century; Nickel Creek was well known for testing the bounds of the form and pulling in influences ranging from classic punk rock to jazz and beyond.
Solidifying Her Solo Voice
As a solo artist, though, Watkins started softly. Her self-titled debut three years ago was a collection of mostly cover songs delivered smoothly through her sweet-and-easy soprano. Early on in the follow-up Sun Midnight Sun, though, Watkins delves into the round warmth of her lower range. Don't get me wrong, it's hard to deny the attraction of her upper-reaches. But it turns out her voice is full of life and depth when she scoops low.
"You and Me" (purchase/download) is a richly nuanced contemporary folk song held down by a deep and thumping rhythm section. It's almost a shame the song appears so early on in the disc. It may have done better later on, considering its complicated honesty is a bit startling after the fiercely distorted fiddle tune which precedes it ("The Foothills").
The whole spirit of this disc seems to be about shedding skin and old clothes, exploring the depths of one's self, shirking the comfortable aesthetics of youth in favor of the possibly heavier (but decidedly more enriching) trappings of maturity.
Quickly, she spins into a series of tunes which are explicitly not folk music. Folks reading this site because they're interested in traditional old time music may as well steer clear. Those moved by genuine expression which doesn't even try to hold allegiance to any singular form, will find plenty to enjoy. It's informed by tradition, to be sure, but this is very much a statement from one woman living in the 21st century.
One major standout is her surprisingly astute channeling of Deborah Harry in a duet with Fiona Apple on "You're the One". Their voices meld nicely and the rapid punkish pounding at the end will likely startle some. But Sara Watkins, much like her former collaborators, has never tried to err on the side of "easy listening." Where Chris Thile has earned much praise for blazing new trails on acoustic instruments, Watkins has been biding her time experimenting with other people's music. She's lent her fiddle to A Prairie Home Companion and joined the Decemberists on the road for a year supporting their highly praised last album, The King Is Dead.
That her fiercest instrumental prowess is on fiddle may be part of what's encouraged her to stand in as backup-player. But as a frontwoman, Watkins possesses at least as much if not more of the imaginative vision touted by her more widely praised old friend Thile, or even the occasional understated solo avenues explored by her brother Sean (who also appears on this record).
Admittedly, with only two solo albums under her belt, it's a chore to wrest free of any comparison to what Watkins has done before. Maybe it's the grittier influence of Dawes singer/songwriter Blake Mills, who produced the disc, but Sun Midnight Sun is an entirely different album from what you may have thought to expect...in the best way. I advise you to approach it with an open pair of ears.