New album is an exceptional sampler of the best of Americana.
This is only the Watkins Family Hour’s third album, but it is no journeyman effort. This is the work of virtuosos. Watkins Family Hour is a brother and sister duo — Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins. They are both well established in the Americana universe as a part of various acts. They form the group Nickel Creek along with Chris Thile, play with Works Progress Administration and Sara is one third of I’m with Her, along with Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan.
For the past 20 years the Watkin Family Hour have hosted a monthly musical variety show at Largo, a Los Angeles nightclub, where they are often joined by their musical friends. A number of those friends are on this album, including Fiona Apple, Jon Brion, Jackson Browne, Madison Cunningham, Lucius, Gaby Moreno, Benmont Tench, and Willie Watson.
But the Watkins didn’t just ask their friends to jam. They matched their prodigious talents to the songs on which they feature. As Sara Watkins said, “A lot of the strategy was marrying the songs to the guests that we wanted to be part of the record.” The results are almost a Sees’ chocolate box of an album. Classics are mixed with the adventurous; hazelnut creams in there with the key lime. The album features a good mix – each song different and a delight.
On Jackson Browne’s ‘The Late Show’, Sara Watkins takes the lead, while Brown flows in and out, beautifully singing harmony. Earnest Tubbs’s classic, ‘Thanks a Lot’ is updated by Brion’s guitar. Fiona Apple gives a new voice to Dean Martin’s ‘(Remember Me) I’m the One Who Loves You,’ accentuated by Benmont Tench’s honky tonk piano and Greg Leisz on pedal steel. Gaby Moreno brings it all back to the 21st century with Ethan Gruska’s ‘On the Outside’.
The albums ends with an exceptional rendition of Glen Phillips’‘Grief and Praise.’ The Watkins share vocals with Madison Cunningham and all-star choir of Watkins Family Hour friends including the album’s featured guests along with Dan Wilson, Joey Ryan, Kenneth Pattengale, Sebastian Steinberg, Ed Helms, Liz Vice, among others. This ensemble creates a moving appeal to “Sing loud while you’re able in grief and in praise”. It is a great way to end.
The guests provide variety, but it is Sara and Sean Watkins’ musicianship and love of the art that anchor the album. Sara’s violin and Sean’s guitar create soundscapes that both reflect and revitalize tradition. Sara’s clear voice harmonizes smoothly with Sean’s. Their virtuosity is highlighted on the two tracks they recorded on their own, the ‘Hypnotized’ and Tom Brosseau’s ‘We Were Meant to Be Together.’
‘Hypnotized’ is mesmerizing and a great showcase for Sara’s voice and Sean’s guitar. In ‘We Were Meant to Be Together’ they swap places and Sean takes the lead vocal and Sara’s violin take precedence. It is another great example of their great harmony.
Vol II is an exceptional album that presents a broad spectrum of Americana songs and talent. Sit back, and slowly work your way through this incredible box of treats.