26 Miles – Sean Watkins
Sugar Hill Records 3955
As goes Nickel Creek, so goes Sean Watkins. After 2002’s staggering rock/pop
turn by Nickel Creek on This Side, it was safe to say the members of
the band were moving far beyond the parochial scene of folk/bluegrass. They
performed Nirvana’s "Lithium" and The Beatles’ "Taxman" in concert, almost
as an open acceptance of the music they could never avoid in the rolling
hills and swelling sands of southern California.
Over the last few years Sean Watkins, the group’s guitarist and principle
songwriter, has continued to explore what he terms "quality pop." He
indefatigably listened to Elliott Smith. He placed The Beatles’
Revolver on repeat and listened until the influences seeped into his
consciousness via osmosis. He began hanging around L.A.‘s ultra-hip
nightclub, the Largo, running into Brad Mehldau and producer-of-the-moment
The results of the past years events and influences are squeezed onto a
reflective plastic disc for his sophomore solo release, 26 Miles.
"Quality pop," as Watkins shows, has everything to do with conflating melody
and lyricism. To have only one of the two almost always trammels the other.
Rather than turning to acoustic instrumentation, which might not complete
the fusion, Watkins uses everything-but-the-kitchen-sink to add to the
ambiance of 26 Miles.
For being a tyro in this idiom, Watkins success rate appears remarkably
high; the swirling sounds of Jon Brion’s antiquated keyboards and organs
inform the mental anguish of "On Ice," while a string quartet evinces
potential redemption to counterpoint the wavering anxiety exposed on
"Carousel." At other moments, the quiet solace of a guitar backed by a
tortured lyric, as purported on "Through the Spring," serves an equally
powerful purpose in exploring the sentiments of the song’s solitary speaker.
Watkins even turns to drum machines, samples, and loops to instill a cold
reality to the title track "26 Miles" to augment the lyric’s exegesis of a
world where prescience can never offer succor.
In Watkins’ intended meanings, however, he wallows in his own
self-indulgence too often and too long. The yearning of a wealthy twenty-six
year old who continues to find exiguous mates reaches a point of syrupy
self-loathing. But as a pupil of Elliott Smith and probably Jungian
psychology, maybe Watkins simply had to get all of it out on this record. At
least he appears to have mastered the arduous part of the "quality pop"
process, the melody and production, in spite of the lyrical melodrama.