A fresh album from the acclaimed sibling duo
Watkins Family Hour’s aptly named Brother Sister is the follow up to their eponymous 2015 debut album that continues their spirit of lively experimentation and richly layered performances.
The Los Angeles-based sibling duo of Sara and Sean Watkins lead the group, which originally began in 2002 as a residency at a Los Angeles club where the siblings were able to experiment musically and at which they invited a variety of other performers on stage with them. The spirit of Watkins Family Hour encouraged the pair to push themselves musically and offered them a venue to experiment beyond what they were doing elsewhere.
The two siblings seem exceptionally close judging by the chemistry with which they perform together. The album primarily features Sara playing fiddle and Sean on guitar while one or both of them sings, so they each must support each other. “The Cure” opens the album with a duet where their two voices collide and harmonize, neither one overpowering the other.
The album achieves remarkable emotional range and textures which the Watkins elicit from so few instruments. “The Cure” in its uncertain resolution contrasts the nostalgic “Neighborhood Name” which follows it. The apprehension of “Snow Tunnel” contrasts with the bluesy jam of “Keep It Clean,” a homage to their musical predecessors. “Keep It Clean” is a modern, brighter take on the great Charley Jordan blues tune, and even though they’ve added a few more instruments and layered harmonies (with guest vocals from David Garza, Gaby Moreno and John C. Reilly), it retains the sly and humorous irreverence of the original.
The instrumental songs on Brother Sister show that they don’t even need words to tell a story, though. “Snow Tunnel” begins with an apprehensive guitar solo and a gradually strengthening fiddle. The duet grows into a lively race towards the end of the tunnel at which point the song dissipates. “Bella and Ivan” received its name from a friend’s dogs and evokes all the glee of dogs at play.
Sean and Sara are no strangers to the music world, as they, along with Chris Thile, founded the bluegrass band Nickel Creek in 1989 when the siblings were only twelve and eight years old, respectively. They won a Grammy in 2002 for their fourth album with Nickel Creek, This Side. In addition to Watkins Family Hour and Nickel Creek, each sibling has a successful solo career, but it’s clear that when they play together, Sean and Sara thrive off of each other’s creativity.
Brother Sister features the best of what has resulted from the Watkins Family Hour. The polished vocals and neat song structures show some hours spent writing and smoothing the edges of what might have arisen spontaneously, and the dynamic between Sean and Sara shows how by having played with each other and listening to each other for years, they learned how best to complement each other.
It’s no surprise that from the unstructured but encouraging environment of the Watkins Family Hour, where they are free to play whatever and with whomever they want, the Watkins wrote an energetic bluegrass album of wonderful summertime warmth.