Words like “preternatural” probably shouldn’t be used in reviewing a record, especially one as wonderfully natural sounding as this one. But the more I listen to Sara Watkins’ self-titled album, with its gossamer vocals and heavenly instrumentation, the more the “p” word asserts itself. The music seems neither of this time nor of the past, but somewhere in between. Or somewhere above.
In album-release parlance, this is a “solo debut” the 27-year-old Watkins’ first effort under own name, away from hibernating new grass supergroup Nickel Creek. But there’s nothing solo-ish about the singer and fiddler’s seamless interaction with a stellar cast of accompanists (including her brother, fellow Nickel Creek alum Sean Watkins). And there’s nothing debut-ish about Watkins’ emotional assurance and range as a singer and songwriter, whether she’s reflecting on romance or history, reaching out to religion, acting out a narrative, or just sittin’ and pickin’.
Sara Watkins performing David Garza’s “Too Much”.
From the haunting opening strains of her original tune “All This Time”, with its sweetly resolved casting-off of fate (“I just feel like the wind came and blew all the crumbs away/I’m finally breaking it off with your memory”), you know you’re in the presence of an artist working on a deeper level than your average new grasser. As a singer, Watkins is both huggably endearing and powerfully affecting. As a songwriter, she radiates compassion, never more so than in wishing for a troubled friend someone or something to “bring hope to his heart, relief to his mind.”
As for her gifts as a fiddler, she runs an impressive gamut in accentuating the swing of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time” with pedal steel great Greg Leisz; preaching the gospel of “Give Me Jesus” with her other Nickel Creek mate, Chris Thile (who plays mandola); hoeing down with contemporary string partners including Ronnie McCoury and Punch Brother Chris Eldridge; and getting poppish on David Garza’s bouncy love song “Too Much”, with resident L.A. genius Jon Brion on guitar. (Her smartly chosen covers also include Tom Waits’ “Pony”.)
Recorded in Nashville and Los Angeles, the album was produced by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, whose recent production credits also include an album with all-female string band Uncle Earl. Jones excels at deriving a unified, warmly unassuming sound from a large all-star cast, which also includes Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench, and Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas. The evidence here suggests that they, too, were taken in by by Watkins’ preternatural charm.