In the four years since her previous solo album, singer and fiddler Sara Watkins has reunited with her old bandmates in Nickel Creek and led a veritable hootenanny of roots-music all-stars called the Watkins Family Hour with her guitarist brother Sean. Her bluegrass roots have given way to folk-pop gloss, and her record Young in All the Wrong Ways (New West), released this summer, suggests that other things have been afoot as well. In press materials she calls it “a breakup album with myself,” and the songs chronicle not only the dissolution of a relationship but also a deliberate disruption of old habits and a search for new ways to look at life. The shift announces itself straight out of the gate: drummer Jay Bellerose lays down walloping beats on the title track, a rock song fueled by stabbing electric guitar from Jon Brion and Punch Brothers member Gabe Witcher (who produced the record). It’s a kiss-off to an old partner (“You remind me of the girl I was / When I was young in all the wrong ways”) that celebrates freedom from unhealthy stasis and the invigoration of new possibilities.
Most of the songs that follow are gentler, sometimes using a sweet country-pop sound (I could imagine Dolly Parton singing “One Last Time” and “Tenderhearted”) or a kind of anodyne adult-contemporary vibe (“Like New Year’s Day” is a rather bland recollection of meditative trip to the desert). Watkins plays fiddle on only two tracks, including the terrific honky-tonk exercise “The Truth Won’t Set Us Free.” As transitional efforts often are, it’s a mixed bag, and on first encounter I was a bit surprised by the album’s hard-hitting songs. I’ve grown to like them best, though, and as you can hear below on today’s 12 O’Clock Track, “Move Me,” when the music gets loud Watkins lets her voice wail, pushing it into appealingly soulful, raspy terrain. She performs Wednesday evening at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet, Wislawa (ECM)
BJ Nilsen & Stilluppsteypa, Góða Nótt (Editions Mego)
Lajkó Félix és Zenekara, Lajkó Félix és Zenekara (Fonó)
Earle Brown, Selected Works: 1952-1965 (New World)
Goofus Five, 1924-1925 (Retrieval)