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Monday, April 6, 2009

John Paul Jones-produced solo debut of Sara Watkins sounds great

A new album produced by John Paul Jones hits music stores and online retailers Tuesday, containing the solo debut of Sara Watkins.

Jones also plays a little bit of bass, a few keyboard instruments and mandolin, and why not a little bit of backup singing in for good measure. From a production standpoint, the John Paul Jones stamp is all over the 14 songs on this disc, but he limits his playing time to less than half the album. And what's more, you'd be hard pressed to find very much here that's reminiscent of his days in Led Zeppelin.

Most of the songs on this album are either slow or very soft, but the arrangements are appropriate. Having an ear like that of John Paul Jones was a huge asset to this record. The fact that none of these songs fades out makes it really sound less like a studio creation and more like a band performing for listeners' enjoyment.

Here's my track-by-track assessment, followed by some closing thoughts.
  1. John Paul Jones is one of two harmony singers backing up Sara Watkins on the first track, "All This Time." The other is her brother and fellow Nickel Creek bandmate, Sean Watkins, who's also playing guitar. Greg Leisz plays a pretty steel guitar. Benmont Tench, the famed keyboard player for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, lends a delicate piano line, and Elvis Costello and the Attractions drummer Pete Thomas lays down a subtle drum line. Sebastian Steinberg plays a fine acoustic bass.

    The real treasure here, as on much of the album, is Sara's sexy lead vocal. There are few people who can make these words sound so sultry: "You're still in my cupboards. Get out of my cupboards. Get off of my walls. Get off." I mean, I think the only other time I've heard those words, it was my 90-year-old great-uncle having hallucinations. Sara makes it sound great, and because the song ends rather abruptly, it makes for a good opening track because it leaves you wanting more.

  2. "Long Hot Summer Days" is the song that inspired my April Fool's Day joke last week. Sure, the tune has a similar chord progression to that good ol' traditional tune we Zeppelin fans call "Nobody's Fault but Mine," but songwriter John Hartford gave it a different melody and some lyrics about ways to blow off steam after a manual labor job in the sun.

    Sara Watkins and Rayna Gellert of Uncle Earl both play fiddle on the track. Billy Cardine is on Dobro. Sean Watkins plays guitar. Gillian Welch plays electric guitar. The bass is from Byron House and the drums from David Rawlings (Sara describes them as "caveman drums"). They are all responsible for the solid backing on this, and at the 4:22 mark one of the musicians even lets slip a "Whew!" It may have been Tim O'Brien, who sings backing vocals, but it's definitely not this writer. No, I'm really not on this album at all. If you still want to hear the track sung my way, you can -- at least until the cease-and-desist order is received. But forget all that because Sara's version is superb.

  3. "My Friend" is a light song whose lyrics form sort of a prayer. This could easily be the companion piece to "Give Me Strength" on Eric Clapton's 461 Ocean Boulevard. Imagine the protagonist of that song was badly wounded and was praying for strength. In Sara's song, she is a female friend praying for hope and relief to come to him.

    What's especially neat is that both songs include that fine instrument known as Dobro, in this case played by Michael Witcher. Sean Watkins plays acoustic guitar, and Mark Schatz is on bass.

  4. So far, three out of three tracks have had both Sara and Sean Watkins on them. So, other than the absence of Chris Thile, there hasn't been much different from a Nickel Creek album. And this track adds to the similarities. At right about this place on a Nickel Creek record, we'd be listening to an instrumental. Well, that's what happens here, four tracks in.

    "Freiderick" is the first truly upbeat track on the album too. Chris Eldridge opens the track by laying down the rhythm and chords on acoustic guitar. It has a spirited and folksy melody, sounding almost Celtic in nature. Sara Watkins takes the lead on fiddle, with Ronnie McCoury following her closely on mandolin. This one doesn't have either bass or drums.

  5. Pete Thomas delivers a lovely 6/8 rhythm for "Same Mistake," the majority of which Sara Watkins sings as a duet with her brother. Sara also plays some smooth fiddle here. Greg Leisz plays steel guitar throughout but never dominates. Benmont Tench is back on piano for this track again. And our fourth bass player, Sebastian Steinberg, takes over on this track and the next.

    The song was written by Sara's fellow Largo regular, Jon Brion, who oddly doesn't appear on the track, although he does on four others, including the next two.

  6. "Any Old Time" is a particularly catchy song, originally recorded by Jimmie Rodgers. I keep playing it over and over because it's so enjoyable.

    It's partly because of the backing band, which is the same as on the last track except with Jon Brion on an additional guitar in place of Benmont Tench on piano. This track provides the best instrumental playing on the entire album. Leisz lets loose on a great solo with some jazzy chord substitutions, and Sara follows up with an equally compelling fiddle solo. Leisz adds a great "choo-choo" sound in the last verse.

    Not only that, but Sara and backing vocalist Tim O'Brien do a great job singing it. It's a song of forgiveness and second chances that is sure to put a smile on any face and halt any further straying from this forgiving lover.

    Seriously, if you're thinking of downloading only one or two tracks from the album, this is one not to be missed. See also No. 12.

  7. Remember John Paul Jones? We haven't heard him since the first track! Well, he's back playing bass on this Tom Waits song, "Pony." Now, the bassline is nothing like what he played on "What Is and What Should Never Be." In fact, all he's doing is playing single sustained notes on the roots of the chords. I'd be willing to bet his track was added only as an afterthought to provide a previously missing bottom end to this really subtle song.

    Sara Watkins plays ukulele on this track for the one and only time on the album, and steel guitarist Greg Leisz resumes his role in the background. Jon Brion and Chris Eldridge share guitar duties.

  8. John Paul Jones plays bass again on "Lord Won't You Help Me," which stops just short of the three-minute mark. Sean Watkins plays acoustic guitar and sings harmony while both David Rawlings and Gillian Welch play electric guitar and sing harmony. There's an uncredited bass drum on this track. The guitar solo here could pass for one of Jerry Garcia's on Workingman's Dead. The song was also recorded by Norman Blake.

  9. "Jefferson" is the second and last instrumental on the album. Sara Watkins takes the lead on most of this track with her fiddle. Ronnie McCoury plays mandolin. Mark Schatz delivers a heavy acoustic bass guitar, bowing it halfway through the song to great effect. And yes, you guessed it, Sean Watkins plays acoustic guitar.

    So, where's that other guy from Nickel Creek? Oh, he's on the next one!

  10. It's on this track that Chris Thile makes his only appearance on the album, playing mandola. Sara Watkins plays fiddle again, and joining her on vocals are Jenny Anne Mannan and Luke Bulla. But here's where Watkins is singing her absolute best.

    The song is the spiritual "Give Me Jesus," handled particularly well in this three-part harmony setting.

  11. "Bygones" opens with a pair of fiddles played by Sara Watkins and Rayna Gellert. The tune is dirge-like, almost medieval-sounding. One minute in, Sara's singing is joined by Aoife O’Donovan and Claire Lynch. Soon, John Paul Jones joins in on organ, specifically what sounds like bass pedals. Though his instrumental contribution to this song is so slight, it's an important part of what makes the song work. He strays from the roots of the chords and adds some intriguing counterpoint.

  12. So, if "Any Old Time" was a must-download, "Too Much" is its little sister. And guess what, Led Zeppelin fans? John Paul Jones plays bass on it! Written by David Garza, this is a catchy lighthearted pop tune that would be destined for some radio airplay if only that entity known as modern corporate radio could stray from the latest Hollywood-created Disney sensation and give us something out of Nashville instead. But given the proper promotion, this should chase Raising Sand in the charts.

    Pete Thomas tosses in a rhythm on "Too Much" that couldn't possibly sound any more straight, but that's acceptable because that's how John Bonham played on "Black Dog" and "Kashmir," right? Don't forget that Thomas accompanied Jones on some of his solo work, so he knows a little bit about satisfying the guy who's producing this album.

    Sean Watkins on acoustic guitar combines with Benmont Tench on piano to create a simple yet really integral facet of this pretty little song. Jon Brion is on electric guitar and really shines on his solo and through to the end. Aoife O'Donovan returns to sing a little backup in the middle chorus.

  13. "Will We Go," a danceable swing number, starts off with only Sara Watkins on fiddle and her brother on guitar. There's a gradual buildup throughout the entire song. Sara sings the first verse, and then John Paul Jones joins in on what is at first a very simple bassline. Chris Eldridge and Luke Bulla eventually contribute harmony vocals. At Sara's fiddle solo, Jones comes in on a separate track, playing mandolin, and his bass part becomes more complicated. Then, when the vocals return, Jones adds a third track; this time, it's a tasty electric piano, not unlike what he played on "Down by the Seaside." The buildup having been completed, the song ends with a cute little tag line, with Jones having the last laugh on bass.

  14. The album's closing song is not only the slowest but also the sweetest, although it's a breakup song. To the tune of a line from U2's "All I Want is You," Sara intones, "When my thoughts no longer comfort you, and my heart no longer moves you, when my voice no longer soothes you, where will you be?"

    Jon Brion plays some lush tremolo-filled electric guitar that would make Link Wray blush. Sean Watkins adds support on acoustic guitar. John Paul Jones is responsible for bass, again, and piano. Pete Thomas limits his playing to the bass drum only.
The following applies not only to this track but to all 14 of them. Each of the instruments on this album sounds like it was carefully and deliberately chosen. Nothing is here that shouldn't be, and nothing is obviously missing either. This is to the credit of John Paul Jones, who obviously knew what he was doing when he put it all together. The fact that the original tunes are worthy of listening to at all, however, is to the credit of songwriter Sara Watkins, who has made a fine solo debut. My guess is she'll never want to make a record without John Paul Jones giving this much assistance!

Recording sessions took place in Los Angeles at Henson Recording Studios, and in Nashville at the Sound Emporium, engineered by Dave Sinko at both locations. He then mixed the tapes at Nashville's Studio 5. Eric Conn mastered the album at Independent Mastering LLC in Nashville.

Some past comments from Sara Watkins on her album and how John Paul Jones's involvement came to be can be found here.

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