SEAN WATKINS Blinders On (Sugar Hill)


“Blinders On” is the Nickel Creek guitarist’s third solo album, and it plays like a pocket-sized Wilco, performing similar feats of avant garde distortion upon innocent country-rock songs – in fact, Wilco drummer Glen Kotche contributes, as do Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench and soundtrack wunderkind Jon Brion. It’s an intriguing sound he makes, but also one that’s kinda plastic and theoretical, with no real heart beating amidst the “Abbey Road” harmonies and toppling time signatures.

Sawing strings add a jagged spine to “Starve Them To Death”, which sounds like an Lake Trout or The Belles gone experimental, laced with sun-dappled Southern California air. (The paw prints of Radiohead’s experimental years are also all over this album.) Watkins seems at his most sincere on the album’s least affected moments: “Hello….Goodbye” might be a sliver of a song, but there’s no fussy window-dressing to detract from its core. Even then, there’s an emptiness to his voice, as if all feeling slides off its surface, perfect but hollow.

“I Say Nothing” wears a ducking, sky-sawing patchwork of an arrangement; “Coffee” is all treated musical box melancholia, but the whine in Watkins’ voice can set the nerves a janglin’. Upping the pretension level somewhat, “Cammac” is billed as “a sample from the second movement of my string quartet” – all 20 seconds of it!

It’s part of the uncomfortable mess of contradictions that is “Blinders On” that one minute it can be playing you the clumsy “Roses Never Red” and the next pulling out, on “They Sail Away”, passages of gravity-defying loopiness, like a film soundtrack from outer space. The gently thunking beats of “Not That Bad/Blinders On” are delicious, but utterly out of place amidst its Beach Boys harmonies, acoustic guitars and piano. “Whipping Boy” begins like a hipster’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”, an illusion it maintains for exactly as long as it takes for the listener to realise that the hipster’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” is actually “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”. Finally, an untitled guitar and strings bonus bit rattles like Michael Nyman gone bluegrass, a noteworthy adventure in genre-bending.

“Blinders On” bubbles over with good ideas, but seems, in this finished form, a bit random and lumpy. It lands right across the thin line between clever and clever-clever; it’s no “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, mainly because the songs seem reliant on the trickery to prop them up.