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npr music: First listen

If Sara Watkins hadn’t thrown a fistful of salad, toppled a pineapple and squished a deviled egg during the otherwise well-mannered, family-dinner-themed music videofor «Move Me,» a potent song from her new album Young In All The Wrong Ways, there probably wouldn’t be any footage of her behaving badly. And to think that the 35-year-old fiddle player first stepped onto the national stage in her late teens.

Pop and rock have long histories of fetishizing youthful rebellion, but Watkins came up in a bluegrass world of generation-spanning festivals, picking contests, music camps and mentors that channeled youthful energy toward mastering time-tested craft and respecting musical elders. Before Nickel Creek (the acoustic trio she started with her brother Sean and their childhood friend Chris Thile) drew a college-age crowd with earnestness, instrumental precision and expansive instincts in the early aughts, there wasn’t much of a template for string-band music that reveled in youth. Ever since the group took a break a decade ago, she’s been staking out her own territory at the intersection of roots-mindedness, pop experimentation and self-expression, even as she’s bounced between supporting roles (with The Decemberistsand Prairie Home Companion) and low-key collaborations (in Watkins Family Hourand I’m With Her).

Sara Watkins, Young In All The Wrong Ways

Sara Watkins, Young In All The Wrong Ways

Courtesy of the artist

Though Watkins waded into songwriting on her first two solo albums, 2009’s elegantly sentimental self-titled set and 2012’s Sun Midnight Sun, both could be considered showcases for her imaginative interpretations and arrangements. That the latter album introduced a newfound bite in her musical ideas and performances was lost on those who’d pegged her as a sweet and sunny innocent. But on this latest 10-song collection — every bit of which she either wrote or co-wrote, and very little of which prominently features her fiddle playing, though it was produced by another highly accomplished fiddler in Gabe Witcher — she speaks a language of cutting clarity.

The title track opens the album and sets the tone. Watkins momentarily loses herself in lulling wistfulness, only to lurch into a rebuke of naïveté, bearing down on her scorn for once-automatic acquiescence over spiky eruptions of electric guitar and a tumultuous drum groove. «I’m going out to see about my own frontier,» she insists twice in a row, sounding determinedly detached. Watkins isn’t acting out belated rebellion so much as disrupting comfortable certainty and fleshing out an adult, feminine vantage point — one that chooses which attachments to cultivate.

Sometimes Watkins applies a soft touch in sound or sentiment. Cradled by Jon Brion’s dew-drop plinking of piano keys and her dainty plucking on ukulele, «The Love That Got Away» conveys the melancholy awareness that romantic choices are often haunted by the thought of unexplored options. In the orchestrated ballad «Invisible,» she accepts the fact that beginning a relationship perfectly in step with someone doesn’t ensure that the solidarity will last. «When we were young and truth was absolute / We stood side by side defending what we knew,» she sighs, her phrasing feathery, cursive and rueful. «Today we walk together, but one’s ahead and one’s behind / And if there’s an answer here, then I am blind / Neither you nor I can see a right side this time.» The gently galloping singer-songwriter pop tune «Say So» clings to hope that an alienated comrade will someday draw close again, while «Tenderhearted» is a hymn to emotional vulnerability.

But in the artfully uninhibited pop-rock tantrum «Move Me,» Watkins delivers the chorus with the urgency of someone digging her fingernails into your arm. The wry string-band romp «One Last Time,» which boasts harmonies from My Morning Jacket‘s Jim James, turns courtly flirtation on its head and makes a show of distrusting a lover’s tossed-off lines. And the honky-tonk two-step «The Truth Won’t Set Us Free» is her chance to puncture an oft-used platitude: No matter what people say, a bit of soul-baring won’t magically fix a disintegrated 20-year partnership.

By now, Watkins has been in the spotlight for half her life. Never before has she made her voice heard quite this clearly.

It’s not that weddings are inherently creepy, per se. It’s that, more than in many other momentous occasions, the same traditions and symbols that make a wedding lovely seem to have particularly dark counterparts. A beautiful wedding dress becomes adesiccated, dangerous fire hazard. Adoration becomes obsession. Promises to love forever become the tortured pursuit of ghosts. Weddings are ripe ground for storytellers, in other words: one ceremony, a hundred potential outcomes.

Latest to the lineup of artists inspired by the way betrothal can go very, very wrong is Natasha Khan, who performs as Bat For Lashes. Her new record, The Bride, is a concept album that follows the eponymous heroine from pre-wedding jitters immediately to widowhood, as her betrothed is killed on his way to the chapel to marry her. The album, and its subject matter, are a spiritual sister to the high drama of Kate Bush’s «Wuthering Heights,» which also explores star-crossed love and its fallout. Similarities between Bush and Khan extend in particular to a shared wavering, piercing upper register that Khan has deployed on earlier records, but never allowed to sour for dramatic effect. On The Bride, the shift from the borderline-cloying, autoharp-laden innocence of «I Do» to the bent notes and out-of-tune instruments of «Honeymooning Alone» and «Close Encounters» give Khan room to expand both the dramatic arc of the story and her own limits as a performer.

Every Bat For Lashes record is theatrical, and Khan has created characters in connection to her music before, but The Bride comes across as self-contained in a way her previous work hasn’t. Instead of singles dallying in other worlds, this is a deep dive into a single motif, which is reviewed from many angles and in great detail. It’s hard to imagine a better fit for Khan’s particular brand of dreamy, vaguely psychedelic alt-pop than a fully formed soundtrack (the album was inspired by «I Do,» the short film Khan directed earlier this year) to a larger-than-life tragedy and subsequent journey to self-discovery. For that’s what becomes of our unfortunate almost-bride: She commandeers the honeymoon car and takes to the open road. A perfect image for Bat For Lashes, as she embarks on what seems to be a more nuanced, experimental and deliberate way of telling musical tales.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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