Three Women and the Truth
From the Law Firm of Watkins, Khan and Mann

It’s genuinely difficult to pick a favorite member of Nickel Creek.

Chris Thile is a once-in-a-generation musician, of course, able to do things on a mandolin that even the creators of the instrument couldn’t have foreseen. His band Punch Brothers is one of the most impressive collectives of progressive-minded bluegrass players ever assembled. You’d think he would be the easy favorite, but no. The Watkins siblings, Sean and Sara, may not be as supernaturally talented, but they are superb songwriters, players and singers, and their individual takes on the style of bluegrass-folk-pop that Nickel Creek traffics in are refreshing, shorn of some of the off-putting complexities of Thile’s work.

Both Sean and Sara Watkins have released solo albums this year, and both of those albums are splendid, while being markedly different from one another. Sean Watkins’ dark and brooding What to Fear is his best, a moody affair about liars and philanderers and the state of the country. Now here is Sara Watkins with her third solo effort, Young in All the Wrong Ways, and it’s bold and ambitious and hopeful, even when it’s angry. It’s an album that effortlessly straddles all the different types of music Watkins has made in her career, melding them into a vision of pop music that is thoroughly organic.

Within the first three songs, in fact, Watkins jumps from the loud electric explosion of the title track to the slow and peaceful “The Love That Got Away” to the more bluegrass-inflected “One Last Time,” and remarkable as it may seem, all three share space on this record with ease. “Move Me,” the soaring first single, is a gloriously loud pop tune, and Watkins’ voice is passionate and strong. “I want you to move me, but you just keep the peace…” It’s an awesome song, a true standout here, and yet it fits nicely between “One Last Time” and the quiet, simple “Like New Year’s Day.”

Watkins sounds comfortable, even energized, by the different types of music she tackles here. Perhaps her finest moment is “Say So,” a song co-written by the great Dan Wilson. It’s one of the poppier songs, led by a strumming acoustic and a shimmying beat, and her vocals here are delightful. It’s also one of the most hard-won: “Hope is where you say it is, deep as you can dig for it, when you’re ready to begin, say so, just say so…” That hope suffuses the record. Yes, there are lost-love stories like the traditional country number “The Truth Won’t Set Us Free,” but they’re matched and outshone by lovely pieces like the closer, “Tenderhearted,” a paean to those who let love in: “They’ve had loss and been broken, more than we will ever know, but it’s the tenderhearted who let life overflow…”

Part of the reason Young in All the Wrong Ways impresses is the team Watkins has assembled to help her realize it. She’s been in the game a long time and developed relationships with some of the best players around: Jay Bellerose, Jon Brion, Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz, Jim James, Benmont Tench and Punch Brothers Gabe Witcher, Chris Eldridge, Paul Kowert and Noam Pikelny. Witcher produced the album, and Watkins co-wrote with Wilson and Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman. But the truly impressive part is that it’s Watkins – her songs, her voice – that holds this dream team together, and molds them into a perfect portrait of her own talent and vision. I may never be able to pick a favorite member of Nickel Creek, but as long as all three keep putting out music of this caliber, I’m happy I don’t have to.

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Speaking of individual visions, there’s Natasha Khan. Her one-woman project Bat for Lashes has always been fascinating, marrying a strong Kate Bush influence with an affinity for grand concepts. This has never been more true than now, on Bat for Lashes’ fourth album, The Bride. I’m not sure I’m ready to call it her best – that honor probably still goes to the glorious Two Suns – but The Bride is a beautiful and tragic piece of work, an exploration of heartache, loss and healing.

Yes, it’s a concept album, the story of a bride whose fiancé dies in a car crash on the way to their wedding. She decides to honeymoon alone, and spends the second half of the album learning to cope with her loss and her new life. The record begins and ends at peace, but Khan puts you through an emotional wringer in between. Her voice, always haunted and forlorn, is in top form on this album, making you feel every painful and longing word.

As you might expect, none of this is subtle. The album opens with “I Do,” a brief moment of bliss on the eve of the bride’s wedding. “In God’s House” finds her waiting at the church for her fiance, and receiving the news of his death. “Honeymooning Alone” begins the emotional heart of the record: “Your empty seat by my side, if I drive far enough, will I find my love?” “Sunday Love” is the most propulsive piece here, the closest thing to a single: “Even though I’m falling apart, I want Sunday love in my heart…” The song skips forward on a trippy beat and glittering synths, yet Khan’s voice keeps it melancholy.

As much as I like the concept, and the forward momentum it provides the first half of this record, I also like that it’s basically an excuse for Khan to write six songs in a row about losing someone you love, and working through the pain. These six songs are the core of the album, and among the best that Khan has ever penned. They’re whispers, barely-there things that are bursting with feeling. “Never Forgive the Angels” is powerful, a single unmoving bass line with thick keyboards, Khan grieving in song: “Nightmares come and they don’t go, for my love is gone, and I will never forgive the angels for that…”

“Close Encounters” follows suit, but removes the bass line, leaving Khan to sing over her bed of sad strings and keys. “Widow’s Peak” is a spoken descent into the heart of darkness, the bride trying to outrun the widow that she knows she will have to be. The spare “Land’s End” and “If I Knew” feel like climbing through fog toward the light, and the light breaks through on “I Will Love Again,” a song that resonates even more fully at the end of this record. “I will turn it back around, I’ll be homeward bound,” she sings, and then with the peaceful “In Your Bed,” she proves that love is not out of her reach, that her hard battle with grief and loneliness was not in vain.

The Bride is not an easy album to listen to. It’s a difficult and painful journey, and Khan gives you no outs, no asides, no respites. It hurts. But it’s worth it. I don’t know what kind of loss Khan herself suffered that inspired this album, but she’s invited us to travel with her during her healing process, and undertook that process with searing honesty. This might very well be her best work, and I hope its quiet, understated nature doesn’t lead to it being ignored when it comes time to tally up the year’s best. It’s haunting and utterly captivating.

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I’ve been waiting months for the Sara Watkins and Bat for Lashes albums, but my third contestant this week was a complete surprise.

Lauren Mann is a delightful songwriter I discovered at the Cornerstone Festival in 2010. In 2011, I bought her second album, Over Land and Sea, and loved it to pieces. Mann’s piano-led pop is unfailingly tuneful and memorable, romantic and optimistic. You can’t listen to Over Land and Sea and not come away with a song in your heart. Blessedly, the same is true of her third album, Dearestly, which she surprise-released online about a week ago. In fact, this one’s even better, even more soul-enriching.

I’m a fan of these surprise releases. In about 15 minutes I went from not even knowing that Lauren Mann had a new album in the works to enjoying it on my laptop, and that’s a completely different experience than anticipating and longing for a record you know is coming. It’s even better when the surprise album turns out to be not only excellent but so damn optimistic that you feel even more like dancing. I don’t think I’ve heard a more upbeat, pure-joy one-two-three punch this year than the one that opens Dearestly. “New Beginning,” “Brave Face” and “Beautiful Place” are all nimble, full-hearted tunes that will make you smile and sing along.

The rest of Dearestly is just as pretty, as in love with life, as its opening trilogy. I wouldn’t hesitate to use the word “dreamy” for much of this material – just listen to the long piano-and-backing-vocals coda on “Talk of Leaving,” and try not to get caught up in it. The wonderful chorus of “Hibernate,” the disco-inspired groove of “Make it Smooth,” the gorgeous piano and organ atmosphere of “Oregon,” the killer Suddenly Tammy-esque riff of “Show Me the Way,” the soaring “You Are Fire,” and on and on. There are just too many high points to mention. To my ears, the only misfire is the goofy “St. Lawrence,” and I even like that one.

I know, you’ve never heard of Lauren Mann. Well, you should fix that. You can download Dearestly for as much as you want to pay, or buy it on CD and vinyl, here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.