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(Sugar Hill 3955 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/16/2003)
To the chagrin of a few die-hard traditionalists, out of bluegrass has come some of the most eclectic music of the past two decades. Ever since David Grisman started playing musically complex, jazzy music with his quintet in the late 1970s, what has become known as the New Acoustic scene has brought forth some impressive music that not only features virtuoso musicianship, but is really interesting compositionally. Béla Fleck, and his banjo mentor Tony Trischka, along with people like Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, the groups Psychograss and New Grass Revival, and many others have created a unique musical hybrid whose boundaries are ever widening. Though many of the founding players in the New Acoustic scene are still relatively young, a newer generation is emerging, with artists like Alison Krauss, and Nickel Creek.
A group whose average age is still in their early twenties, Nickel Creek made their national recording debut in 2000 with a very impressive recording that featured both phenomenal musicianship as well as excellent original material. While their debut release still had a strong bluegrass component, the trio's principal members, Chris Thile, and siblings Sara and Sean Watkins have been taking a cue from Béla Fleck and leaving all pretense of being traditional behind, drawing on rock and the singer-songwriter approach on their second CD This Side, which won the Grammy Award for "best contemporary folk album." In the meantime, both Chris Thile and Sean Watkins have released solo albums.
Now guitarist Watkins is out with his second solo release called 26 Miles. As has his fellow Nickel Creekers, Watkins has moved from a bluegrass-influenced, instrumental-dominated sound in the New Acoustic tradition, into a style in which bluegrass is just one component, and in this case, not a very large one at that. He has chosen to collaborate with jazz musicians for his rhythm section, and occasionally adds into his music something about as far from bluegrass as one can get -- distorted drum loops on a couple of tracks, along with frequent saxophones and an electric guitar or two, and left-field-classical contributions from a bassoon and string quartet. While Watkins' debut solo album was dominated by instrumentals, with a guest vocal on one track, 26 Miles is primarily a singer-songwriter recording, with Watkins singing on all but three of the 14 tracks. But musically it has the eclecticism and outstanding musicianship for which his band is known. In fact, his sister, Sara, the Nickel Creek fiddler appears frequently and fairly prominently.
Other regulars on this CD are his friend and fellow San Diegan Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket, providing some backing vocals, saxophonist Trip Sprague, bassist Kevin Hennessey, and drummer Duncan Moore. Also appearing on a couple of tracks is veteran jazz bassist Bob Magnusson.
This CD does span an interesting range of styles from laid-back acoustic to 60s psychedelic-influences, and Watkins' compositions are quite interesting musically. Where he falls a little short is in the vocal department. He is an appealing singer who nevertheless does show some occasional vocal limitations. But that is more than made up for in the excellent musicianship and the intriguing arrangements.
Opening is a piece called On Ice, which came out of little game that Watkins and Glen Phillips had when they were touring jointly. They would come up with a song topic, and they each had to write a song about it by the next day. On Ice quickly shows that this is not bluegrass, with its hints of psychedelic influence. <<>>
The following track also came out of the songwriting game. Chicago begins with the kind of complaints a Southern Californian is likely to voice over a Chicago winter. Again, the stylistic mix is an interesting blend with more hints of Beatles influence, some folkiness, and the jazzy saxophone and acoustic bass. <<>>
The first of the instrumentals is called NMI for "New Medium Instrumental." It features Sara Watkins on the fiddle along with some retro synthesizers lurking in the background. <<>> Sean Watkins does allow himself to get in a nice guitar solo. <<>>
The bassoon, played by Britt Hebert, makes is appearance on Letter Never Sent, one of Watkins' more impressive pieces of songwriting. Glen Phillips provides the backing vocals. <<>>
The CD has a couple of tracks that were recorded on the road, in hotel rooms, and the like, originally as demos, but then used as-is. Through the Spring is another worthy piece of writing, but Watkins' vocal performance under the circumstances falls short of his work elsewhere on the CD. <<>>
The title track 26 Miles features the currently faddish use of drum loops. They contribute little to the well-written and musically interesting song, on which we are reminded that vocals are not Watkins' primary strength. <<>>
Not surprisingly, my picks for best tracks generally come from the ranks of the instrumentals. Chutes and Ladders starts in the jazzy New Acoustic vein, but with the sax and rocky rhythm, hints at the kind of music that Béla Fleck has been doing with the Flecktones. <<>>
The CD ends with another of its more intriguing tracks. Carousel, starts as a ballad using the merry-go-round as an analogy of a relationship. <<>> After a rocky mid-section, the piece goes out with a classical style string quartet. <<>>
Those expecting Nickel Creek's guitarist Sean Watkins to come up with another bluegrass or New Acoustic style CD for his sophomore outing are likely to be surprised. 26 Miles is an impressively wide-ranging album that is more into the singer-songwriter mold than anything else, but also full of lots of musical interest, and generally does an impressive job of creating musical hybrids from the various influences on which Watkins draws. He enlists players whose backgrounds run from mainstream rock to mainstream jazz. Some parts work better than others, but in general, Watkins and colleagues create a pleasing, yet absorbing recording that defies ready categorization, and generally stays away from the bluegrass which established Watkins' reputation.
Our grade for sound quality is a unqualified "A". The acoustic instruments are well-captured, and even the home demo recordings included are a long way from lo-fi. The dynamic range is also better than the contemporary average, even among acoustic CDs.
Like his fellow members of Nickel Creek, Sean Watkins is not content to stay in one place musically. His new CD underscores that, and takes us on a edifying musical itinerary marked by creative writing and arranging, and classy musicianship.
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