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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1237

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Sean Watkins: Let It Fall
by George Graham

(Sugar Hill Records 3928 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/2/2001)

A little more than twenty years ago, the world of bluegrass was shaken up by a new generation of performers, led by David Grisman, Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Darol Anger and others who took the instrumentation of bluegrass and combined it with eclectic, decidedly non-traditional influences from jazz to World Music. Since then, so-called New Acoustic Music has gained a considerable audience and extended its influence even into more staid, traditional bluegrass circles.

Now yet another generation of young acoustic musicians are taking the genre to new levels, often with the kind of virtuosity that was so impressive in their predecessors and achieving surprising popularity thanks to the prominence of bluegrass in a recent Hollywood film. Alison Krauss, who emerged while in her teens, has been especially successful. One of the most impressive of what I suppose could be called the "newer acoustic groups" is Nickel Creek, whose eponymous album was released just about a year ago and was a truly remarkable recording from a group, some of whose members are still in their teens, showing a combination of instrumental virtuosity with rare sensitivity, delivering music that ranged from introspective songs to rich, multifaceted original instrumental compositions.

Nickel Creek's guitarist, Sean Watkins, has just released his first solo album called Let It Fall, and he continues the extraordinarily high standards set by his group, with a collection of mostly instrumental pieces from solo guitar performances, to upbeat bluegrass-oriented original songs, plus a vocal performance from Glen Phillips from Toad the Wet Sprocket.

Now 24 years old, Sean Watkins was one of those bluegrass prodigies like Béla Fleck who come along every so often, making it to the finals of the National Flatpicking competition at the age of 16 in 1993. Watkins and his sister Sara formed Nickel Creek, along with their long-time family friend Chris Thile and his father Scott Thile. They have been touring constantly for several years now, honing their musical skills to where their album from last year, produced by Alison Krauss, quickly became a critics' favorite. While Chris Thile and Sara Watkins are the more visible members of Nickel Creek, with Sean Watkins dedicating his energies to the band, the guitarist has been amassing a collection of original material, and striking up a friendship with one of his early musical idols, Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket, a group from Santa Monica, California, where the Watkinses grew up. Watkins and Phillips have recently been collaborating on songwriting, and a joint album release is expected later this year, but Let It Fall has one track featuring Phillips, in a more introspective style than his group's fans might expect.

For his album, Watkins is joined by most of the members of Nickel Creek, including his sister Sara and mandolinist Chris Thile, plus acoustic luminaries like Dobro man Jerry Douglas, fiddler Stuart Duncan, and bassist Todd Phillips, who played with David Grisman. The result is a delightful album of very tasteful acoustic music that spans genres, and is often quite subtle, deceptively simple, melodic and laid-back in its sound, but based on compositions marked by considerable musical sophistication. Through it, Watkins' guitar work is marked by what could be called restrained virtuosity -- impressive playing, but in the service of the composition and without much of the flash that would call too much attention to itself.

The all-too-short 39-minute CD gets under way with an original piece called Neo's Song, in what is now the classic New Acoustic style, jazzy with complex chord changes and shifting meter. Fellow Nickel Creeker Chris Thile is heard on mandolin, Stuart Duncan wields his fiddle, while the banjo is played by Dennis Kaplinger, and Todd Phillips is the bassist. It perhaps comes closest to being7 a virtuosic showpiece on this otherwise rather more understated album. <<>>

A different facet of Watkins' guitar playing is highlighted on the beautiful piece called January Second, on which he plays all the guitars. There is a plaintive quality to the composition which also hints at the Spanish guitar style. <<>>

Also with scaled-back instrumentation is another very pretty track called The Birth with Watkins mostly on mandolin and his sister Sara on the fiddle. <<>>

The piece with Toad the Wet Sprocket's Glen Phillips is the title track Let It Fall. It's a fine piece of writing reminiscent of the style of Nickel Creek -- melodic and contemplative but musically intricate. Phillips puts in a fine vocal performance, while Jerry Douglas adds a nice touch with his Dobro. <<>>

About as close as this album comes to straight bluegrass is a piece called The Ant and the Ant, but it still has the musical twists and turns that owe more to David Grisman than to Bill Monroe. <<>>

Also with a nod toward Grisman is Ferdinand the Bull with its complex, jazzy rhythm and parade of musical colors and moods that come and go in this fine performance, featuring another bluegrass prodigy, Luke Bulla on fiddle. <<>>

There is one solo guitar piece called Cloudbreak, which true to Watkins' form, is subtle and moody, rather being than a showcase for fancy picking. <<>>

The album ends with what is now becoming annoying common -- a hidden extra track at the end, a trick that has by now lost its novelty. But musically, it's another highlight. The unnamed piece moves into the realm of fairly straight, swing-oriented jazz, with nice playing by Watkins on both lead and rhythm guitars, and the addition of Duncan Moore on drums. <<>>

Two decades ago, the New Acoustic pioneers brought a new level of sophistication to bluegrass instrumentation. Today, a newer generation are building on that and bringing a further degree of depth and subtlety to the music. Sean Watkins' band Nickel Creek are a prime example. And now, on his new solo album Let It Fall, the guitarist shows he's not only a fine musician, but an outstanding composer and arranger who can draw on a wide range of influences. His new CD features an impressive cast of players, including Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan, while at the same time providing a nice showcase for Watkins' understated guitar virtuosity. The result is great listening that should appeal to fans of everything from jazz to New Age, as well as bluegrass and New Acoustic styles. About the only complaint is that there is not much of it, with the CD coming in at under 40 minutes in length.

Our sound quality grade for the CD is A-minus, bordering on an A. The acoustic instruments are well-recorded in this project that was recorded in studios from California to Nashville. But as is all too common, an attempt to make this CD sound louder ends up restricting the dynamic range a bit too much, losing some of the ebb and flow of the music, and slightly undermining the often delicate touch that Watkins and his colleagues bring to the music.

In a day and age when commercial music seems to be getting dumber and coarser all the time, Sean Watkins is an excellent antidote. In addition to making for great listening, his new album is also a most hopeful reminder of the quality of music that can come from today's young generation of musicians.

(c) Copyright 2001 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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