Summary

Sara Watkins throws a bone to her old Nickel Creek fans by opening up Sun Midnight Sun with "The Foothills," one of the album's two instrumental numbers. It's a zippy bluegrass tune, driven forward by Watkins' furious fiddle playing, and it's the closest she ever comes to the rustic sound of her former band. Watkins doesn't completely forsake the farm for the city on this solo release, but she does stretch her arms quite a bit, pulling in everything from quirky indie pop to West Coast folk-rock to harmony-drenched Americana. She nets a few big-name collaborators, too, with people like Jackson Browne, Benmont Tench, and Fiona Apple (who lays down some deep harmonies on a galloping, spaghetti western version of the Everly Brothers' "You're the One I Love") stopping by for a song or two. This is clearly the Sara Watkins show, though, even when she relies on producer Blake Mills to help her co-write the album's best tunes, and she's never sounded better as a singer. She croons like a country star on "Be There," a sad-eyed, twangy duet whose guitar riff pays tribute to Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," and chastises a reluctant lover with a sharp, flirty coo on "When It Pleases You." The rest of Sun Midnight Sun bounces between pastoral folk and big-city pop/rock, often blurring the lines between the two, and the album comes full circle with its closer, "Take Up Your Spade," a campfire singalong that roughly approximates Watkins' more acoustic beginnings. It's not as polished as the other tracks, but it's a helpful reminder that even when you strip back the eccentric arrangements and lush production, Watkins can still deliver. ~ Andrew Leahey