Imagine thinking you know, or at least believe yourself to know, what’s coming when a band announces a new album, only to find yourself relieved there’s no extreme betting involved once the record actually starts.
In all fairness, it’s not entirely unreasonable to think one would have a good handle on what to expect from folk and roots duo, Watkins Family Hour. Not only is new album brother sister (Thirty Tigers Records, 2020) the pair’s sophomore outing but, the Watkins siblings are also familiar far and wide for musical endeavors over most of their lives. Sean and Sara Watkins have worked side by side with each other and a plethora of other musicians but over time have nonetheless each developed signature styles of playing that tend to transcend whatever musical setting in which they find themselves.
Lead single “Just Another Reason” served as a fantastic taste of what was to come but its easily achieved enjoyment came with a price. An upbeat tune fueled by moderately paced, even chugging guitar; rhythmically matching, violin pizzicato; and subtle tonal punch from alternating kick and snare drums, the song’s melody moves along like a train on a line of solidly laid rhythmic track that only becomes more assured as time passes. Sean and Sara alternate solo vocals on the verses, joining together as the pre-chorus builds into the chorus, where their classic and fluid harmonizing takes over full steam ahead. It’s a masterfully constructed song with a catchy refrain formed from smartly applied lyric repetition. All of this is to say that while what’s described sound inherently flawless, it’s precisely the fact that the song’s structure, performance, and sound are so easy to gravitate to that diminishes expectation of change.
All that you need, gotta leave it behind
It’s all burning down, it’s just a matter of time
Once this fire was a vision of grace
Now it’s just another reason
Now it’s just another reason to get away
Now it’s just another reason to get away
– Lyrics from “Just Another Reason”
Funny enough however, two songs back on opener “The Cure,” there’s enough tonal variation with more prominent drumming from Matt Chamberlain and a deep, rounded baritone guitar part giving melodic richness to the low end, that any preconceived notion of stylistic inertia suddenly feels wholly unwarranted. Even more amusingly, to then find not just the beginning of the song but the whole record, calling out reluctance to change (I’ve been praying for a breakthrough / as long as everything stays the same), it’s almost poking fun at the Watkins’ juxtaposition of choosing easily accessible comfort in writing and trying something new.
There are of course some moments when specks of ingrained style grown and nurtured over a well-practiced life thus far, inevitably come through. The instrumental duets of “Snow Tunnel” and “Bella and Ivan” take lyrical surprise out of the equation and in its place, the sheer reveal of more development and refinement heard in Sean and Sara’s musicianship is more than enough to impress newcomers and long committed fans. While the latter delivers energy classic to the Watkins’ intangible resonance, in the former, Mike Viola’s production lets the instruments expand and contract with intimately mic’ed sections followed by sections where instruments and syllabic “ahh” vocals sprawl out and decay more slowly. This careful shaping of the duo’s iconic instruments transport listeners to the literal place Sean Watkins was that inspired the song: a loud and dark tunnel eventually greeted by a landscape of pure snow.
Where the stripped back, somewhat raw-leaning mic-ing style of brother sister might make the album seem lacking in unexplored sonic nooks and crannies, one of the best surprises waiting to be experienced is the very interaction (or lack thereof) between Sean and Sara themselves. “Fake Badge, Real Gun” emphasizes this point well. While the song’s reserved but clear social protest messaging is less common lyrical territory for both, it’s the carefully interchanged movement of Sean and Sara’s voices, as well as the way all the other parts are made to play, that make the track shine. Short flourishes of finger style notes on the guitar; repeated notes bowed with a bounce on harmonizing string parts; and percussive beats with a sharp clacking timbre: all of these distinct sounds are given room to breath, while also creating layers of tonal and performative contrast against the succinctly worded verses and legato sung phrases in the chorus. The song can sound sparse at times but in this case, spread out doesn’t equate to boring or insufficient. All together, the song comes to unfurl like a delicate and diversely textured mosaic, despite not going to extreme lengths to weigh down the mix with a bevy of effects or tones.
Truthfully, the amount of difference, change, and embrace of the unexpected (Moog makes a supporting appearance on the album), is here and here in spades; it just takes some time and a little cajoling to notice. Ironically, this impression is largely achieved through parts being given plenty of space from each other – and that includes the Sean and Sara. One could say there something to addition by subtraction for the duo. Having often been written so close together in previous works, now hearing them relate and interact in songs, without needing or aiming to have their voices and-or instruments consistently intertwined – as beautiful as it sounds when they are – just shows another dimension to their chemistry as fellow musicians and of course, as family. In a sense, it’s not all that different from what happens when family that’s grown gets back together after years gone by: the connection is still there but the meeting itself leads to lots of new discoveries since the last time you were together: just like this year’s get-together of Watkins Family Hour.
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