After the disappointment of Nickel Creek's second CD last year, I was a little concerned as to what Sean Watkins might come up with for his second solo CD, 26 Miles. It seemed a little early to put out new material, as if Watkins was rushed; and as we all know, most of the time "rushed"="bad." Thankfully, in this case, I was wrong; 26 Miles is a return to form for guitar wunderkind Watkins, and a daring CD to boot.
Watkins doesn't rest on his laurels here. Rather than another album of newgrass and guitar instrumentals, 26 is almost a folk CD instead; the focus is on Watkins' songwriting and vocals, and they turn out to be pretty darn special. Along the way, he experiments with lyrical jazz forms ("Letters Never Sent"), Duncan-Sheik-like vocal stylings ("Locking Doors") and violin and guitar stylings that remind me of nothing else than the New Age group Shadowfax ("N.M.I.").
Indeed, Watkins proves himself to be an adept of many different musical stylings on 26 Miles. The production is simple and stripped down, really highlighting the chameleon act going on here, as Watkins continues to reinvent himself from song to song. There are some truly astonishing things going on on this CD; it's almost as if for thirteen tracks Watkins became thirteen different musicians.
Other tracks of note: the straight-ahead newgrass instrumental work of "Chutes And Ladders"; Watkins' astonishingly expressive vocals on "On Ice"; the traditional country sounds of "Hiding"; funky sampling and tape loops on "26 Miles"; the distorted percussion and rich guitar work on "Brick Window" -- this is a CD where you just remain agape, astonished at the sheer talent inherent in Watkins' varying virtuosity.
26 Miles is a truly great CD. Don't miss it.