Nickel Creek captured a certain kind of acoustic magic around the turn of the millennium, and they’ve been chasing that spark to varying degrees of success ever since. Frontman Chris Thile is now the host of public radio’s Live From Here, and his bluegrass band The Punch Brothers have made five albums over the last 15 years, one of which (The Phosphorescent Blues) made the biggest splash. Sara Watkins has made three solo records and one stellar collaborative one with supergroup I’m With Her, and her brother Sean has made his way with outfits of his own, including the duo Fiction Family and supergroup Works Progress Administration.
Sean and Sara have joined forces again for Brother Sister, their second LP as Watkins Family Hour, a project that stemmed from their residency, now 18 years running, at L.A.’s Largo venue. Brother Sister, however, is their first LP of primarily original songs (they were joined by a full band—and Fiona Apple, for one song—for 2015’s covers album Watkins Family Hour). Featuring seven freshly written tunes by Sara and Sean and three covers, Brother Sister is a tame but beautiful collection of entertaining Americana.
Fans of Nickel Creek, who released their latest album as a group, A Dotted Line, in 2014, will be particularly enamored with Brother Sister’s ravishing contemporary folk arrangements and earnest storytelling, but the Watkins siblings ultimately accomplish something different here than what they did with the band that made them famous: Where Nickel Creek specialized in soaring, occasionally melodramatic and always squeaky-clean roots music written and performed by a trio, the Watkins kids serve up raw, familial folk that doesn’t require any added glamour (or superfluous emotion) to make it attractive. Brother Sister is a down-home record, the kind only people who are related to each other could make. It’s the sound of two people reminiscing about childhood while trying to survive adulthood.
“I avoided the cure but it found me anyway,” Sara and Sean sing in sweet harmony on album opener “The Cure,” a song about hitting rock bottom and rising back up even without meaning to. Sara has always been a gifted singer and fiddler, and she sounds more comfortable than ever with her instrument here—like the violin is her other sibling. Another highlight is spirited lead single “Just Another Reason,” which features Dawes drummer Griffin Goldsmith and is an impassioned love letter to community and family, no matter how complicated these institutions can be:
There’s a fire that’s been burning
Since the day you arrived
It’s kept your world turning
And you kept it alive
Hope to uphold
A line in the dirt
Even when it hurts
The pair explore origins again on “Lafayette,” citing their native “California” and “the broken road” back home. The urgent “Fake Badge Real Gun” is lyrically topical and a fantastic show-off of the Watkins’ combined musicianship as Sean soulfully keeps time on his guitar while Sara expertly plucks a whole rainbow of emotions from her violin, singing “The truth will be waiting” with the feeling of a scorned country singer in the vein of Miranda Lambert. But a jerk ex-lover isn’t necessarily the object of this song’s frustrations: Sean says it was inspired by a comment he heard on the news about deceitful public officials—a kind of “fakeness” we can all relate to.
While covering a song by Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton, Sara and Sean echo, “Everything’s changed but the neighborhood name,” over a chirpy beat. The adult world may be a land of ever-evolving pains and fears, but family—be it chosen or blood—is steadfast. Few working musicians today understand that like the Watkins siblings, who have, with this album, again set the feeling of community to song—something we’re clinging to now more than ever.
Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. She occasionally moonlights as a film fan on Letterboxd. You can find her yapping about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson.