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CD Reviews:
Listening Room: Sara Watkins, Neil Young and more...

Of the Oakland Press

Posted: Sunday, April 5, 2009

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Sara Watkins, “Sara Watkins” (Nonesuch)***

It’s fair, and not at all insulting, to portray Sara Watkins as possibly the next Alison Krauss. Both came from bands in the bluegrass world — Watkins’ Nickel Creek and Krauss’ Union Station — but expanded their reaches with an eclectic group of musical associations, and they each have trademark voices and estimable instrumental skills. And these days, each has a Led Zeppelin patron in tow — Krauss winning Grammy Awards with Robert Plant and now Watkins releasing a solo debut album produced by the group’s John Paul Jones. “Sara Watkins” is directionless in the best possible way; its 14 songs find her exploring a broad stylistic terrain, anchored by her keening and occasionally spectral vocals and her earthy fiddle (along with guitar and ukulele) playing. And while the album represents a fresh start there’s also an intriguing darkness and sense of loss, particularly in the bookend pieces “All This Time,” in which Watkins both celebrates and mourns the recovery from a broken romance, and “Where Will You Be,” which asks a lover some pretty tough questions. In between, Watkins — who wrote six of the tracks — delivers two-step Western swing (Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time”), a spiritual (“Give Me Jesus”), a prettied rendition of Tom Wait’s “Pony,” a soulful cruise through David Garza’s “Too Much” and a lively, Celtic-flavored instrumental (“Jefferson”). The guest list is impressive, including Nickel Creek’s Sean Watkins (her brother) and Chris Thile, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawling, Ronnie McCoury, Elvis Costello’s drummer Pete Thomas and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ keyboardist Benmont Tench. But producer Jones carefully makes sure they’re effective without getting in Watkins’ way, giving her performances plenty of room to shine. And shine she does on an album that vaults her from the talented member of a wellregarded group into a force in her own right.


Neil Young, “Fork in the Road” (Reprise) ***

Neil Young is not one to let many ideas fester for too long — and his haste has resulted in some potent offerings over the years, such as the 1970 protest anthem “Ohio” and the politically charged 2006 album, “Living With War.” The impetus for “Fork in the Road” is his Linc Volt project, in which Young and his cohorts have engineered a 1959 Lincoln Continental that runs on alternative, environmentalfriendly fuel. Recorded with his latest touring band, obviously primed from being on the road, “Fork...” is one of Young’s most compelling non-Crazy Horse guitar albums, powered by gritty rockers (“When Worlds Collide,” “Cough Up the Bucks,” “Hit the Road”), bluesy shuffles (“Get Behind the Wheel,” the title track) the epic, full-bodied majesty of “Just Singing a Song” and the punky energy of “Johnny Magic,” a salute to Linc Volt cohort Johnathan Goodwin. Young’s lyrical targets are familiar — greedy corporations, ineffective government, self-centered consumers — but he concludes that “there’s something ahead worth looking for” and is doing his part to get there, even if he thinks that “singing a song won’t change the world.”

New & Noteworthy:

Claudia Acuna, “En Este Meomento (At This Moment)” (Marsalis Music/Decca):

Saxophonist Branford Marsalis produced this 10-song set, her first for the Marsalis family label.

Jason Aldean, “Wide Open” (Broken Bow): The third album from the Georgiaborn country singer is already off to a hot start thanks to the first single, “She’s Country.”

Bat For Lashes, “Two Suns” (Astralwerks): Singer Natasha Khan (aka Bat For Lashes) delivers the highly anticipated follow-up to her 2007 Mercury Prize-nominated debut “Fur and Gold.”

Del Castillo, “Del Castillo” (Smilin’ Castle):

Most of the songs for the fourth album by the spirited Latin rock sextet from Austin, Texas, were written during a week-long session in Nashville.

Doves, “Kingdom of Rusts” (Heavenly/ Astralwerks): The British group spent 18 months in a farmhouse studio recording its fourth album, including sessions with producer John Leckie (Radiohead, Stone Roses).

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, “A Stranger Here” (Anti-):

Rochester Adams grad Joe Henry produced this latest work by the veteran singer-songwriter and Bob Dylan confidante, with guest appearances by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Van Dyke Parks, among others.

The Felice Brothers,

“Yonder is the Clock” (Team Love): The Americana quintet’s fourth album takes its title from

Mark Twain’s writings.

The Hold Steady, “A Positive Rage” (Vagrants):

The hip Brooklyn rockers’ first live album is packaged with a DVD documentary featuring concert footage and backstage interviews.

Jadakiss, “The Last Kiss” (Ruff Ryders/Roc-A-Fella/ Def Jam): The rapper’s first new album in five years features guest appearances by Lil Wayne, Ne-Yo, Young Jeezy, Pharrell, the L.O.X. and others.

Duff McKagan’s Loaded, “Sick” (Century Media):

The Guns ‘N Roses and Velvet Revolver bassist (and Playboy financial columnist) rejoins his Seattle side band for its first new studio album in eight years.

Men Without Pants, “Naturally” (Expansion Team): The team of Russell Simins and Dan the Automator bring their debut collaboration stateside, with Sean Lennon and members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Mooney Suzuki, Cibo Matto and others helping out.

MIMS, “Guilt” (American King/Capitol): “Move (If You Wanna),” the first single from the platinum rapper’s second album, is a collaboration with Bob Marley’s son Ky-Mani.

Bob Mould, “Life and Times” (Epitaph): The former Husker Du and Sugar frontman celebrates the 20th anniversary of his first solo album, which is a new outing he recorded in his latest home base of Washington, D.C.

Rascal Flatts, “Unstoppable” (Lyric Street):

After surveying its career with a greatest hits album last year, the country trio and producer Dann Huff team for its sixth solo album. The first single, “Here Comes Goodbye,” was co-written by “American Idol” sixth season finalist Chris Sligh.

Shout Sister Shout, “Hit That Jive” (M.C.): The Michigan combo of Rachel Davis and Steppin’ In It makes its national debut with this set of old tyme jazz, swing and blues songs.

James Taylor, “Other Covers” (Hear Music): Sweet Baby James delivers seven more other people’s songs recorded during the sessions for last year’s “Covers” album.

Glenn Tilbrook & the Fluffers, “Pandemonium Ensues” (E1 Entertainment):

The Squeeze frontman latest solo project includes two members of the current version of the band and 14 new songs.

Various Artists, “Covered: A Revolution in Sound” (Warner Bros.): A 50th anniversary look back at some of the label’s biggest artists — ZZ Top, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Talking Heads — via covers recorded by younger acts such as Mastodon, the Black Keys, Adam Sandler, Disturbed and the Flaming Lips.

Vienna Teng, “Inland Territory” (Zoe/Rounder):

The singer, songwriter and pianist’s third album was recorded in four cities over the course of five months and incorporates a full orchestra on some tracks.

Tower of Power, “The

Great American Soulbook” (Tower of Power): Huey Lewis, Tom Jones, Sam Moore and Joss Stone join the legendary West Coast outfit in recreating these dozen covers of R&B classics.

The Tragically Hip, “We Are the Same” (Rounder): The Kingston, Ontario quintet strikes a surprisingly optimistic tone on much of its 11th studio album.

From the Vaults

Beastie Boys, “Check Your Head (Deluxe)” (Capitol/EMI); Ray Charles, “Genius: The Ultimate Collection” (Concord). the Grateful Dead, “To Terrapin: Hartford ‘77” (Dead. net/Rhino); Erasure, “Total Pop! — Deluxe Box” (Rhino) George Jones, “A Picture of Me”/”Nothing Ever Hurts Me” (Collectors’ Choice); Cassandra Wilson, “Closer to You: The Pop Side” (Blue Note/ EMI)

New Music DVDs

Foreigner, “Soundstage Presents: Foreigner — Live” (E1 Entertainment); The Priests, “In Concert at Armagh Cathedral” (RCA Victor)

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