Issue #98: What To Fear by Sean Watkins

January 22, 2018

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What To Fear by Sean Watkins
Released On March 18, 2016
Released By Family Hour Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Kira Grunenberg

Sean Watkins. This California born, expert guitarist has a cornucopia of experience and band histories behind him, which make his name easy to latch onto much longer conversations and to place among many overlapping fan bases. From partnering with Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman and creating Fiction Family, to writing and playing as one third of neo-bluegrass giant Nickel Creek, Watkins even worked a few super groups in the mix via Watkins Family Hour and Works Progress Administration. The former included collaboration with the likes of Fiona Apple, Jon Brion, and Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ keyboardist, Benmont Tench, among many others. It’s safe to say Sean Watkins has played around many a musical block and with the release of his 2016 solo effort, What To Fear, the guitarist’s individual work reached a point of notable transformation as well. Knowing this but also knowing many aren’t liable to know him outside the folk scene, Off Your Radar seems like a perfect home for shining a light on this new echelon in Watkins’ career.

Though known primarily as a guitarist, Watkins is versed in multiple instruments and his songwriting certainly isn’t lacking in quality, as the man’s creativity has led to hit singles and Grammy achievement. What To Fear isn’t a solo debut by any means either: it’s Watkins’ fifth outing on his own, following 2014’s All I Do Is Lie. As someone extremely familiar with Watkins’ sound, his style, and a big fan of his finesse on the guitar, one would think it’d be easy to pour on accolades and praise with an extremely low burden of proof for the definition of “good.” This is true to a degree but honestly, what makes What To Fear so great is that even within an established understanding of what Watkins can do, this fifth album manages to stand objectively outside of its predecessors and, well apart from the habitual recall to Nickel Creek’s style. It’s almost like a fresh start for those like myself who know Watkins’ sound and for those who don’t, it’s a confident body of work that relies on no prior sonic context or conceptual association to be viewed as fascinating and gratifying upon acquisition. In short, Watkins found a sound and a style that became his and represented him in that present time — not as something of simply continued culmination standing currently at the front of a long line of a career.

There’s acoustic guitar to be found on this album, but there’s also electric guitar, piano, cello, whip-cracked drums, dulcimer, and even some mellotron from Watkins himself! The guitar takes the lead on many tracks; kicking off the record with a sense of comfortable instrumental familiarity in the title song’s intro hook. Yet, despite its inclusion, the guitar isn’t there to be a crutch for a lack of any other ideas. What To Fear hits a second home run for Watkins in that the album was promoted to indicate his clear vision of narratives and of purpose for the music. The album isn’t one of explicitly singular concept but it’s made clear Watkins is out to tell stories and foster imagination around the songs.

There’s a wide palate of subject matter at play with What To Fear. Topics span from your universally relatable reflection on a long dead relationship (“Too Little Too Late“), to a re-arranged redux of “Keep Your Promises” (a track from All I Do Is Lie, revived as “Keep Your Promises II“), and the keenly socio-politically conscious title track that highlighted the shadows of questionable integrity already creeping into public discourse more than a year ago. What’s interesting about the wide net though, is that when observed more closely beyond each song’s elevator pitch, Watkins’ injects a sense of caution and-or nervous optimism that comes through his delivery and the shapes of the songs’ melodies rather than just titles or lyrics taken out of context. This energy fuels What To Fear and remains quietly but undeniably present all the way from start to finish. The only track that steers well outside of any current event connections and introspective realism, is the melodically catchy but lyrically downright invasive and disturbing “I Am What You Want.” The elevator pitch concept for this track could easily read “The Stalker’s Anthem” (“The world is wrong / and it won’t be long / til you finally find that I am what you want”). Still, even for a song that feels like an overall conceptual misstep, going in with the understanding that Watkins was out to stretch his legs with songwriting that framed him in the place of playing a role or writing emotion that lies a few degrees away from himself, the more unsettled the song leaves you, the better of a job Watkins did.

For those who are crossing paths with Sean Watkins solely through What To Fear, this isn’t a run of the mill romp-and-stomp good time record. It’s one that inspires thoughtful listening from all angles. Not coming away from the album humming a hook down the street might seem like a disappointment but it’s not the default mode of the industry to encourage reserved enjoyment and that’s the crux of What To Fear‘s offerings: A shrewd instrumentalist’s skills who bottled up songs to exercise the emotions and thoughts we don’t always get to display on the surface in everyday life.

Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier

A multi-instrumentalist specializing in the modern blend of folk, country, & roots, often with startling results.

Does knowing more about what you’re listening to make you appreciate it more? The first few times I listened to Sean Watkins’ most recent solo record, What To Fear, I thought, “Meh, generic country singer-songwriter.” Then, the voice began to sound familiar to me — I even placed it to the time I lived in Albany in the early 2000s — but I could not match the name with the voice. When I discovered that Watkins was a member of Nickel Creek, my opinion of the record immediately changed on my next listen. I started to hear little things that gave me flashbacks to driving through New England with This Side as the soundtrack, an album that was, to me, this warm hug that momentarily made me miss the South less than I actually did. I have enjoyed Chris Thile’s post-Creek work, but did not follow up with Sean or his sister Sara. What To Fear made me remember what a great songwriter Watkins is (he penned the excellent “Speak” on This Side, as well as the even better title track). “Keep Your Promises II” is a stunning song, and a great example of what makes Watkins such an effective songwriter. I love the progression and structure of it — deceptively simple but amazingly catchy and relistenable — plus, the background vocals (Watkins and what I’m guessing is his sister) are beautiful. I know I say this for every male artist, but Watkins has a wonderful falsetto and should use it more — the teases in “Keep Your Promises II” and “Everything” just made me want to hear that register of his voice more. The strong vocal melody and strings in “Too Little Too Late” make a marvelous showcase of Watkins’ skills as an arranger and writer. I am almost embarrassed about my initial impressions of Watkins’ music, but it’s amazing how you can make all these associations to other music you love with just one piece of information. The more I heard the songs on What To Fear, the more I loved and connected to them.

Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ

Thanks to a certain hit CBS sitcom, the phrase “nothing good ever happens after 2 AM” has entered the cultural lexicon. Thanks to my new job schedule, I have to wake up at 2:30 AM if I want enough time to eat something and get to work by 4 AM. And thanks to me putting off listening to What To Fear for the first time until this very morning [as of this writing, “this very morning” means January 21, 2018 at 2:30 AM], I can definitively say that “nothing good ever happens after 2 AM” doesn’t always apply. Usually I enjoy listening to something with more distortion and/or shouting to get my blood pumping when I have to wake up early, but I got a whole new morning experience listening to this album. Something about not being fully awake and smelling breakfast sausage cook gave me a taste for the heartache and pain of this album. The title track didn’t feel like it was 5 minutes long, which only sped up the cooking time, and I devoured the next three tracks as quickly as I did my bagel and eggs (of the three, “Last Time For Everything” really stuck out, self-fulfilling the idea that the first bite is always the best). But What To Fear wasn’t just limited to being my breakfast soundtrack: despite being made up of distinctly non-New York City sounds (okay, so there are some twangy indie bands here, but it’s not associated with NYC), listening to the album’s second half while walking through the mostly empty streets of Brooklyn also got me to view things differently. Suddenly I didn’t feel as rushed, and I was able to take in the sights and sounds of 3:30 AM — bar patrons getting in their final rounds, drunken huddles waiting for their Uber drivers, night shift crowds gathered at the 24/7 diner, and, of course, the just-turned-21-crowd going into Rite Aid for their post-bar needs (mostly a couple 24-packs of Natty Light). It’s a weird thing to be romanticizing, but it’s much easier to do when you’re listening to a song like “Tribulations.” To think, I wouldn’t have discovered this new awe I have for my neighborhood if my first listen to Sean Watkins has been at literally any other time of day. Sometimes good things do happen after 2 AM.

Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie

This album is heavy. Not in the stressful, Marty McFly/Doc Brown kind of way, but in the pleasant, post-Thanksgiving meal, food for the soul kind of way. The subject matter and songwriting is tastefully dense throughout. Anytime there’s a song about keeping promises (“Keep Your Promises II“), you know you’re in for an emotional ride. What caught me by surprise was that Watkins somehow knows my game inside and out. On “I Am What You Want,” he lays it out for a perspective lady: “I know I’m not you’re type / but I swear you’ll learn to love me / Darlin’ would I lie?” I have literally said these sentences to dozens of girls over the years. Okay, maybe not these exact words, but the idea behind the game is true. And it works. Speaking of “working,” the well-timed string arrangements on the aforementioned “I Am What You Want,” as well as “Everything” and “Too Little Too Late” give the album the right amount of gravitas to match the subject matter. Very tight, production-wise. The strings are the gravy to this feast. It brings the entire plate together in the best way possible. Also, I am not proud that my use of the word “gravitas” immediately made me think of gravy.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

It struck me over the weekend that I follow the work of the three members of Nickel Creek like a longtime fan of comic books might follow the Marvel Universe. Musically speaking, Chris Thile and siblings Sara and Sean Watkins stand as tall as superheroes in my book, having created a body of work together — starting at a young age — that’s at once innovative, influential, technically demanding, and immensely enjoyable. They weren’t the first to identify bluegrass as a vehicle for stylistic experimentation, but they logged as many exploratory miles along the way as anyone, if not more. The word “universe” seems fitting in another sense: Like the greater cosmos, the Nickel Creek realm keeps expanding, as its members continue to excel individually and together outside of the group. I’ve tried my best to keep up — I saw the Punch Brothers here in Richmond in 2014 and snagged a copy of the album Chris Thile put out last year with Brad Mehldau; I saw Sara Watkins perform as part of an excellent three-act bill alongside Patty Griffin and Anaïs Mitchell at the University Of Richmond in 2016; and the Watkins Family Hour version of “Not In Nottingham” is a to/from daycare greatest hit — but Sean’s solo output, before this week, represented a final frontier. So grateful for the Off Your Radar nudge in that direction. I love the album’s title track, which reminds me of Radiohead both musically and thematically. There’s a plain-spoken honesty to “Last Time For Everything” that really resonates, and “Where You Were Living” shows why Watkins has been such a great flatpicking foil for Thile’s gregarious mandolin wizardry. Were What to Fear the latest summer Marvel blockbuster, I’d be eagerly looking forward to the sequel.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

Click here to watch the caustic sociopolitical video for “What To Fear.”

Beautifully exposing the media fearmongers with words & images… that will sadly fall on deaf ears and blind eyes.

Heartfelt, poignant, and emotive, Sean Watkin’s What To Fear is easily the most earnest and admirable release of 2016. The renowned singer songwriter has outdone himself with this album, one that encapsulates every bittersweet and overwhelming moment of your youth and brings it in to soft focus for further examination. Sean’s complex compositions flow effortlessly over his touching lyrics, accentuating his already intoxicatingly warm voice. It’s the kind of album that could bring an audience of hardened criminals to tears if paired with the right Disney-esque coming-of-age montage. By the time “Everything” began playing — that’s less than 20 minutes into this album for those of you who have yet to listen — I had (in my head, obviously) decided I was going to forsake my last few months of university to pursue some crazy pipe dream I had yet to conceive, whilst hitchhiking across Europe. In this fantasy, I set out from my small town with a comically large backpack and polaroids of my partner in my jacket so that I could better my chances of starring in the next Jack Kerouac inspired indie movie. I can just see myself now, wistfully sighing over the love I left behind whilst the camera pans out over a dramatic seascape. After re-reading this tangent, I think that I’ll leave the romantic imagery to Sean. If you’re looking for something new and sweet to reminisce to, look no further than What To Fear by Sean Watkins.

Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making

I had only a cursory knowledge of Nickel Creek — and, by extension, Sean Watkins — prior to this week. That is to say, I knew what genre they worked in and that they were rather adept musicians. What To Fear, then, came as an enjoyable surprise. The sorta eerie and sorta hypnotic opening of the record bounced around in my head for the last few days in various locations and situations, making for some peculiar soundtracking. (Driving at night with that guitar melody in your head makes for a bit of a creepy trip, FYI.) What I found especially engrossing about this album is Watkins’ way with words. “I’m sorry for all the bitter seeds I planted / Don’t let those weeds take hold / In your heart of solid gold” is a brilliant way to say “I’m sorry.” Likewise, the short stories he creates, as on the third verse to “Last Time For Everything,” are shockingly attention-grabbing despite being commonplace events. I suppose this is just a long way of saying that I’m glad there’s worthwhile country music out there (like Sean Watkins or Chris Stapleton) that isn’t forced into wearing bro-country jeans in order to get made.

Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That

It’s interesting to try to guess whether Sean Watkins is a Christian musician or just a musician who uses Christian vernacular. I’ve written here before about how, if the songs are good enough, it doesn’t matter. That’s the case here as well. I really loved “What To Fear” and “Last Time For Everything” (especially the story about being pulled over in the latter). “Local Honey” was one of those perfectly placed instrumentals that you don’t hear on albums too often anymore. And “Keep Your Promises II” made me think twice about what “keep your promises” could mean. I was blown away by the spectrum of voices Mr. Watkins brought to this album. He embodies a world-weary cynic on the title track and by the final track, there’s a glimmer of hope, which is why I keep wondering if this is a CD that would be available in my local Christian bookstore. The Gospel-flavored words that show up in his lyrics could be him using language that has traditionally shown up in music that sounds like this, but the arc from cynicism to hope makes me think it’s not a coincidence. Here’s how I know that this album is a great one: when I start trying to unravel the mysteries in the subtext of an album, it means that the album truly makes a connection in my mind as well as in my ears. All my favorite albums do this. Having written all of this, I decided to go track down an answer. It appears that Mr. Watkins is a member of Nickel Creek and so my guess is that, despite what my pattern-seeking brain is telling me, this is a man writing in the folk tradition, which tends to incorporate Christian language in the lyrics. Although maybe what this means is that secular music can tell the story of cynicism giving way to hope just as easily as its non-secular counterparts. …See? All the best albums inspire this kind of deep dive. Don’t miss this one.

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

Through collaborations and projects too long to list, Watkins’ own music has become a treasure trove of modern folk melodies.

Strange how a member of a rather successful band like Nickel Creek (Platinum sales, Grammy nominations and awards) could end up off anyone’s radar, but the Spotify stats speak for themselves. Watkins has about 7,100 “monthly listeners” against his band’s 160K or his bandmate Chris Thile’s 310K. In any case, I don’t really do bluegrass, even of the contemporary variety, so my ears are not included in any of those figures — until now that is. That means that I can’t really make any knowledgeable statements about where What To Fear fits into the context of Watkins’ career or that of any of his many and varied projects. But that also means that except for a mild antipathy to too much pickin’ and a-grinnin’, I don’t really have much baggage to bring to my experience of this album. So here are my impressions after a couple of passes. (1) Guy knows his songwriting. Everything fits neatly together, verses, choruses, and bridges interacting to propel each song like a perfect little machine. (2) Musicianship counts. All the players are top notch and there’s not a missed note to be found. (3) Lyrics are not an afterthought. There are clever rhymes and arresting images in many of the songs. One that sticks out is the chorus to “Too Little Too Late“: “I’m sorry I took your love for granted / The man I was back then / Had a shadow for a soul / Yeah, I’m sorry for all the bitter seeds I planted / Don’t let those weeds take hold / In your heart of solid gold.” You’re probably sensing a big, fat “but” at this point and you would not be wrong. To my taste, his songwriting is a little too pat — where’s the surprise? — and the playing is a little inert — where’s the spontaneity? — and he’s maybe a little too impressed with his lyrics as they can come off a little smug. That quality also comes out in his voice, which can also get a little nasal and high-pitched, qualities that probably serve him well in an environment closer to bluegrass. So the final verdict? If you don’t need a lot of mystery or rough edges in your music, if you want to hear talented guy delve into some interpersonal and political issues with the eye of a storyteller, if you like your sounds rootsy but polished, you’ll do no better than What To Fear by Sean Watkins.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

When I pressed play on this album, I knew it would be right up my alley. Indie music, of which I’m including folk music off the beaten path, is my forte, and it is what I absolutely love to listen to — on a rainy day, on a sunny day, on a snowy day. When I’m going for a long walk contemplating life, this is exactly what I would turn to. This album is already now in my top list of rainy day albums. It has that feel of something hauntingly beautiful and sorrowful, yet happy, and you can feel any emotion if you really listen to the melodies and the lyrics. Since we all know I am partial to the backing music, as much as I love every track on this album, my favourite would have to be “Local Honey.” I loved the music on that track, and the fact that it was purely instrumental just made me connect with the track that much more. I will have this on repeat for days, and this album has definitely joined my top lists. On a side note, I have to commend the album artwork. I feel like album and artwork usually go hand in hand, and this one did just that — amazing, beautiful, moving tracks, with beautiful artwork, I couldn’t ask for anything more on a foggy weekend afternoon.

Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast

Everyone has those days (weeks, months) where everything going on in your day to day life is a huge struggle that you just need a vacation from. Your emotions are in turmoil, your interactions with others are difficult, and your job is a big hassle. Unfortunately, since our lives are rigidly structured and our wallets are always empty due to the depressing late capitalist reality we all live in, there’s not much opportunity to get away, to relax, let everything slide for a while, and let your brain reset. The best you can do most times is just to drive somewhere far away from everything and spend the afternoon relaxing, maybe taking a walk, seeing some things you don’t usually see. And long after the sun has set and you reconcile yourself to going back home and starting the whole thing over the next day, Sean Watkins’ What To Fear is a great album to pop into your pickup truck’s CD player. Its calm, acoustic melodies are quiet and soothing, and the evocative lyrics on songs like “Last Time For Everything” and “Where You Were Living” are the kind of thing that people going through a tough emotional time will find eminently relatable. Of course, there are some subtle Christian touches in the lyrics, which become completely overt on penultimate track “Tribulations,” so that might not work for everyone. But if you can look past those moments in which you don’t completely relate, there’s still a lot of solace and comfort to be found here. Reach for this one the next time the weight of the world is just too great.

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground

There’s a quote from Ray Charles in the movie Ray that has always struck me about country music. “What is it you love about country music,” he’s asked condescendingly, to which he replies, “I love the stories.” In real life, Ray Charles often repeated this point while praising country music — in heated discussions with record execs questioning his decisions, in the middle of a concert when he switched from boogie-woogie to straight crooning, or in passing conversations to anyone who would listen. I’ve always agreed with that answer, finding myself drawn mostly to the songs and artists that craft stories around their songs. Not just of first dates and Friday night hang-outs — but actual stories that are relatable and trackable. In that vein, Sean Watkins’ What To Fear is a welcome listen to my story-hungry mind. Here, the music definitely skews more folk than country, but anyone with more than a radio knowledge of music would know that distinction means nothing in the big picture. There are clear differences between the two if you look hard enough, but they both fall back on similar premises, specifically the storytelling aspect. Some of the stories are more blatant here, but it’s the subtle ones, specifically the title track, that can leave a big impression on any listener. The lyrics can get dry, smug, and caustic at times — something I’d expect from someone who displays his Grammy award on his toilet — but they still hit the lofty mark Watkins aims for each time. Most important here though is how Sean Watkins has risen above his own reputation as an adept guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. He could have very easily released a string of records that features him performing every instrument in expert fashion, something that fans of his would love. But no, he falls back on the standards of songwriting his style dictates, and ends up with a fascinating record full of serene and atmospheric melodies that unfold like story time at a campfire… a campfire anyone would be lucky enough to attend.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
Bad Veins by Bad Veins
Chosen By James Anderson

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Laura Burroughs, Erin Calvert, Catherine Dempsey, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Melissa Koch, Chelsea Kostrey, Steve Lampiris, David Munro, Drew Necci, & Jeremy Shatan

Logo By Matt Klimas


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