|Photo by: Amazon.com|
Key Tracks: "When It Pleases You," "I'm a Memory," "Take Up Your Spade"
I bet you've heard of the sophomore slump--the failure to live up to an acclaimed debut, unhealthy for a developing artistic identity, disastrous for a critical reputation, and a particularly disturbing premonition that haunts the creative impulse throughout a second record's gestation. It's a catch-all pit into which an album can easily be thrown by critics without the proper levels of innovation, experimentation, freshness, and all those other arbitrary creative measurements.
Lucky for Sara Watkins, then, that she has little to lose with Sun Midnight Sun. If anything, her latest offering is an anti-sophomore slump--actively seeking out and correcting the flaws of her debut, all the while having a strong sense of direction.
Her self-titled debut politely invited the listener into the cozy, comfortable bluegrass pigeonhole it made for itself, all the while stifling with the genre's sentimental violin trappings. Since then, she's become a diligent understudy to the leading players of indie, letting quirkiness mold a sound not so firmly attached to those roots.
What we have here are 10 pop songs, all of which clearly bear the country stamp and are spiced to be made palatable for the musical omnivore. Watkins continues to use the guitar and violin as main instruments but a more expansive production and varied textures cause her to stumble upon a punchy indie-rock sound. Through a combination of more conventional radio-friendly songwriting and experimental production, she's written an album more inclined for Pitchfork Festival audiences than the Grand Ole Opry.
The immediate feeling after hearing Sun Midnight Sun following the debut is a newly discovered awe at its sense of speed. If her last album was sitting on a back porch in the Appalachian countryside listening to locals playing homemade instruments, this one is often like the pushing and shoving of a crowded bar concert in the city. The opening trio of the jig-like "The Foothills," the happy folk shuffle "You and Me," and the triplet strums of "You're the One I Love" definitively exchanges the shy bluegrass mannerisms of old for a sound with something differently worthwhile to say.
Her toolbox may not have grown much since last time around, but she is more than willing to make use of almost every single one in all the open spaces she can find. Everything would work fine as a bare-bones acoustic song but every phrase, every verse and every bridge seems to have the goal of introducing something new to the arrangement, be it violin swooping, mandolin picking or even very occasional keyboard backdrops. Watkins isn't letting herself have a growth period--she's seizing the freedom of a solo career like she won't ever make another album.
Granted, one of the downsides of all this arrangement exploration is that her voice doesn't get the glory of the spotlight like it did before. Her remarkable versatility and range is unfortunately one of many moving parts in the album. It's a shame to see such a talent left by the wayside but the album comes out stronger for it. Too many players today put so much stock in the human element of vocals and lyrics that the instrumental bits suffer, but Watkins has gone so far out of the way to distance herself from this kind of safeness that an underused talent can be forgiven.
Watkins asserts herself more in the second half of the album, going for slow-burning bluegrass numbers, but even most of these are an improvement over the last album. The closing "Take Up Your Spade" perfectly paints a countryside sunset portrait with its descending banjo hook and xylophone accompaniment, establishing itself as a highlight even without all the new additions to her sound. "The Ward Accord" is a fine violin-driven instrumental, unpretentious and intimate like heading home to a fire, home cooked dinner and that old-time Southern hospitality that...excuse me.
There's not much reinvention of the country or indie wheels here, but what makes this so refreshing is that there is clearly no contrived effort to do so. There's no bandwagon jumping or clinging to the demands of an esoteric crowd, just the pure desire to stretch out. Indie likes to distance itself from heart-on-the-sleeve country stylistics as much as possible, but I have faith in Sara Watkins to break the alt-rock mold and prove that Taylor Swift is not the death knell for the development of roots-driven rock.
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