When artists come together from varying ends of the industry for a collaboration, the end result prototypically comes across as well-intended, but not-so-well executed. Thinking back to ill-fated collaborations strung across the past decade or so, like Jay Z and Linkin Park’s Collison Course, it wouldn’t have been so much of a stretch to find even Nickel Creek-famed Sara and Sean Watkins in hot water with their own such endeavours. But Watkins Family Hour take such tales of musical tradition and flip them flat on their backs, writhing for air, and it’s all in an ironic sweeping homage to tradition in this selection of studio-recorded covers.
Based off of their own collaborative live act of the same name, well-known amongst members of the LA-bound folk sect, the Watkins siblings bring on the likes of Fiona Apple, Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg, multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz of Bon Iver revere, and drummer Don Heffington, for their first studio album as the Watkins Family Hour. Though developed in a studio setting, the album comes to life with a live exuberance unseen in the majority of such vivid and lush recordings. There’s evidence enough that these well-regarded musicians are coming together as friends to pay tribute to some of the great songs of old; there is nothing more or less to this ensemble, and that in itself develops a palpable grace to admire throughout the album.
Accomplished musicians as they are, each track bounces with the professionalism of masterclass ensemble of instruments, including but not limited to keyboard, guitar, a drum set, bass, dobro, and violin. Their sensibility and experience with music offers themselves well to each song performed, ranging anywhere from Roger Miller and Robin Hood to Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, and Lindsey Buckingham, with a few solid standouts. Sara delivers a nostalgic and infectious vocal on Buckingham’s ‘Steal Your Heart Away’, and Apple notably soars on the country classic ‘Where I Ought to Be’ in a way that she usually doesn’t on her own records. Sean offers a melancholy chord with his rendition of ‘Going Going Gone’ as Steinberg does himself on his brooding rendition of ‘She Thinks I Still Care’.
Overall, Watkins Family Hour proves itself to be an unconventional success by acting as tribute to convention. Lush instrumentation is met by a meaning to these musicians’ craft, and it’s an absolute joy and a treat that they would release a series of fine recordings for those not quite as close to Largo at the Coronet as others. Here’s to hoping that Sara and Sean take the strong reception that they are being given for this release and take it across several other albums under the Family Hour moniker, perhaps even with new guests per every album like with their live show of the same name. This reviewer will not find his sleep until a studio-recorded Watkins Family Hour session featuring Jackson Browne finds its way into reality.
Words: Jonathan Frahm