Sean Watkins, "What to Fear" (Thirty Tigers)
"What to Fear" will seem comfortably familiar to fans of Nickel Creek, the Grammy-winning band in which singer-songwriter Sean Watkins joined with sister Sara and Chris Thile to put a gorgeous bluegrass imprint on well-crafted, sweetly sentimental melodies.
In his second solo album, Watkins merges a new batch of catchy hooks with engaging but not particularly heavy lyrics. It's a natural next step in his musical journey, with stellar acoustic playing by world-class musicians, including his sister and Benmont Tench, Tom Petty's keyboard player. The sound is clear and precise, a continuation of the finger-picking, fiddle-backed approach Watkins started with his band and continued to refine through various collaborations.
Watkins ranges around in subject matter, evoking gospel in a song called "Tribulations," and a Friday night firehouse jam session in the fast-paced instrumental "Local Honey," with Sara Watkins pitching in on fiddle. Several others are vaguely confessional love songs more noteworthy for their melodies and musicianship than any lasting message.
The exceptions — and the best cuts on the album — are an extended apology called "Too Little Too Late," which is good enough to qualify for anyone's mix of wistful breakup songs, and the title cut, an ambiguous but incisive satire in a voice that could be a politician, an evangelical preacher or a TV newscaster.
In a time when presidential contenders seek votes based on things we should be afraid of, the notion that someone else is defining our fears for us strikes a timely chord.