First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2006, Volume 13, #5
Written by Tracy M. Rogers
With his latest outing Blinders On, Nickel Creek’s Sean Watkins continues his journey into the world of austere, minor-key pop songs that he began with 2003’s 26 Miles. Full of circular beats and Beach Boys-esque vocals, the effort finds Watkins experimenting with different musical sounds by playing an assortment of instruments (from his trademark acoustic guitar to synthesizers to drum loops) as he delves into everything from electronic samples to orchestral flourishes. Unfortunately, his risk-taking pursuits work both for and against him, and while Watkins’ unwillingness to rest upon his laurels is admirable, his incessant tinkering produces an album that is rather uneven.
The opening track Summer’s Coming features an electronic intro that kicks into an ominous pop melody, though it also changes tempo and countenance more than once. In spite of that, the song — with its lyrics of disenchantment and longing — is, in fact, one of Blinders On’s highlights. By contrast, Starve Them to Death is a portentous, fiddle- and drum-driven tune with ragtime interludes that showcases both Watkins’ sister Sarah as well as fiddler Gabe Witcher. I’m Sorry is a folk-pop-country waltz about romantic regrets that begins only with Watkins on acoustic guitar and the multi-talented Jon Brion on piano before it crescendoes into a full-band lament. Happy New Year is the first of Blinders On’s pseudo-instrumentals, and it boasts a foreboding, Luther Perkins-inspired, acoustic guitar refrain as well as a string of sinister, blues-infused, electric guitar riffs. Watkins’ occasional vocals on the track are muffled and distorted, leaving the music as the central focus.
On the 50-second vignette Hello...Goodbye, Blinders On detours into country-folk territory. The snippet of a song features only vocals and acoustic guitar by Watkins and a wistful, rather than a threatening, melody that places it at odds with the four previous tracks. With its lyrics of an ill-fated relationship and Benmont Tench’s gentle piano melody, Run Away Girl is equally reflective, and only the climaxing strings of its middle section are reminiscent of the first part of the album.
Just as quickly, Blinders On shifts back into disquieting, pop-oriented territory via the dour, romantic lamentation I Say Nothing. The interconnected, electric guitar-and-piano piece Coffee/Sound of My Crush finds Watkins on his own, experimenting with echoing, muted vocals and rather benign lyrics about crushes and young men’s fantasies.
On No Lighted Windows, Watkins makes another shift in direction — this time, into the realm of country-newgrass. Featuring a rollicking, bluegrass-tinged, fiddle reel at the center of the mix, No Lighted Windows would not be out of place on an album by Nickel Creek, and, in fact, that might have suited it better. The subsequent track Cammac is equally misplaced. An orchestral vignette from the second movement of Watkins’ string quartet Garfield House, the song is up to the task of sounding menacing, but it still is completely wrong within the context of Blinders On.
The remaining four selections are much more in tune with the first portion of Blinders On in that they are all dark laments about lost love. Roses Never Red is Watkins’ most lyrically poetic cut on the outing, while the title track and its attached counterpart features feedback-filled guitars and a piano- and bass-driven melody. A blues-inspired romp about choosing to remain ignorant in the interest of happiness, Blinders On, in fact, is one of the album’s more enjoyable aural experiences. On the other hand, save for its lack of driving rock backbeat, Whipping Boy, the collection’s closing cut, would not be incompatible with the Goo-Goo Dolls’ repertoire. The untitled, hidden tune that rounds out the endeavor is a bluegrass-meets-Spanish classical guitar instrumental that, perhaps, should have replaced one of the country-folk songs on the collection.
Truthfully, Sean Watkins’ willingness to explore and even to forge new, musical landscapes is commendable, but the middle portion of Blinders On is so out of place that the set would have fared better had it been removed, leaving only his romantic laments and disillusioned tales. That single alteration would have made the collection immeasurably more cohesive and critically sound. Overall, however, Blinders On is an enjoyable album that keeps the listener guessing.
Blinders On is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box