There are times when the country scene appears homogenised, with winsome vocalists assembled as though they were part of some cookie-cutter assembly line. With her second solo album, Sara Watkins effortlessly bucks this depressing trend – alongside producer Blake Mills, she’s created a sound that’s gritty and determined to avoid clichés.
As a member of Nickel Creek, Watkins shone as a consummate performer, adding both depth and rigour to a blend of bluegrass and fine contemporary songwriting. That instrumental prowess continues to turn heads, though with Sun Midnight Sun it’s a more integrated affair, locked down deep into the bones and blood of the music.
There’s also a subtle electronic patina across many of the songs, adding an overdriven distortion and not just on the bass and drums. It’s as though the needles in the studio were constantly skipping into the red, coating everything with a layer of dust and dirt.
The beneficiaries of this approach include a rousing remake of Willie Nelson’s I’m a Memory and the old Everly Brothers number, You’re the One I Love. Taken at a perilous, galloping lick with Fiona Apple’s full-throated harmony vocals along for the ride, it teeters on the edge, threatening to wheel out of control.
Yet Watkins has also allowed plenty of space from the scratchy and jagged material. Be There shimmers transcendently, a violin wreathed in layers while an unusual chord sequence plays out that hints at the fear of loss underlining the lyrics. That same nagging undertow of darkness is also present on the bittersweet Lock & Key, a deceptively simple but unflinching look into why things unravel despite our best efforts.