SEAN WATKINS Blinders On (Sugar Hill)
Blinders On is the Nickel Creek guitarists 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. Its an intriguing sound he makes, but also one thats 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 alt.country Lake Trout or The Belles gone experimental, laced with sun-dappled Southern California air. (The paw prints of Radioheads experimental years are also all over this album.) Watkins seems at his most sincere on the albums least affected moments: Hello .Goodbye might be a sliver of a song, but theres no fussy window-dressing to detract from its core. Even then, theres 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!
Its 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 hipsters Raindrops Keep Fallin On My Head, an illusion it maintains for exactly as long as it takes for the listener to realise that the hipsters 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; its no Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, mainly because the songs seem reliant on the trickery to prop them up.