Sara Watkins CD Review: Fiddling While ‘Sun Midnight Sun’ Burns Brilliantly

A Fiona Apple duet and songs by Willie Nelson and Dan Wilson help ex-Nickel Creek member Sara Watkins come up with the year's best Americana album

If Levon Helm's passing put you in an Americana mood, but you’re not sure younger generations have as much to bring to roots-based music as their elders, proceed directly to the superb sophomore effort by Sara Watkins. Not that “Sun Midnight Sun” will only be a balm to suffering Band fans; it might be the finest album of the year so far in any genre.

Who knew the breakup of Nickel Creek would turn out to be such a boon? The separation of that young bluegrass-pop trio has led to an embarrassment of riches. Until now, the Punch Brothers, led by Chris Thile, had a claim on the year’s best Americana record, but Thile’s former partner, singer/fiddler Watkins, has grabbed that particular brass ring with a highly accessible set in which nearly every number sounds like a well-worn and beloved standard.

Although virtually all the songs ring that bell of classic familiarity, only two are actual oldies. Watkins joins voices with friend Fiona Apple on a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “You’re the One I Love,” sped up to such a furious tempo that its harmonic terms of endearment sound more angry or accusatory than affectionate. Fiona fans couldn’t ask for a more terrific aperitif before her own upcoming album, even if the frantic duet does clock in at under two minutes.

Jackson Browne joins in on the other resurrection here, “I’m a Memory,” which maintains the uncharacteristic gallop of Willie Nelson’s peppy original recording from the early ‘70s, but brings out a glorious pop hook that Willie never made so evident. It’s the giddiest song you’ll ever hear about missed opportunities and regrets… and your life really should be filled with remorse if you don’t add this rendition to your permanent collection.

The other outside choice is the single penned by Semisonic-leader-turned-Adele-tunesmith Dan Wilson, “If It Pleases You,” a seven-minute mid-tempo rock & roll ballad of emotional realization that might be subtitled “Codependent No More.” The Crazy Horse-style rhythm guitar gives the album its rawest undertones, while Watkins’ own violin wavers between sweetness and a kind of musical crankiness.

The rest of the equally worthy material was written by Watkins alone or in tandem with her co-producer, Blake Mills, a former member of the L.A. country-rock band Dawes. They smartly open the album with a fiddle-based, vaguely Appalachian instrumental, “The Foothills,” which establishes some continuity for Nickel Creek’s old bluegrass fans even as the distortion on the violin teases how Watkins is becoming more a part of the rock community than the bluegrass one.

Their composition “Be There” is as haunting a road ballad as has ever been written by an itinerant musician. “Don’t hang up the phone/Please be there when I get home,” she sings, the tone in her voice making it clear the estrangement has gone on too long for the odds to be good. “Impossible,” despite its title, sounds just slightly more hopeful in the quest to “untether the ties and the sighs from a heart someone might win/If it isn’t impossible, why couldn’t you be him?”

Watkins hasn’t undergone too drastic a makeover for “Sun Midnight Sun,” although, at 30, she’s a little blonder and, sure, significantly hotter than the teenaged fiddler who first made an impression in Nickel Creek. More than a mere image change, she’s developed a full-bodied singer/songwriter sensibility while working with a cast of supportive L.A. musicians from Apple to the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench, who frequently play with her and brother Sean Watkins at West Hollywood’s Largo club. Her voice has grown warmer and more expressive, even if she’s also got a measure of cool reserve that neatly augments the music’s essential timelessness.

Although there’s nothing remotely showy about the musical chops or emotions on “Sun Midnight Sun,” Watkins isn’t afraid to pluck at the heartstrings by whatever means necessary, either, be it a handful of well-placed words or a rosin-powdered bow.