Not to Be Missed
Catching Up with the Watkins Siblings and Vanessa Carlton

We’re in a bit of a dry season this week and next. There was some decent new music out last week, including the new Man Man and ten new songs by Damien Jurado, but nothing to get the pulse quickening. And I currently have nothing slated for this week at all.

As always when I hear a great, year-defining record – and Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters is certainly that – new music has to fight for space in my consciousness. So even if I were expecting some revelatory new works over the next couple weeks, chances are good that I’d only half-heartedly listen anyway, intent on returning to the seismic powerhouse Apple has delivered. So in a way, this is a good thing – had the universe chosen this week to give me something world-class, I may have missed its magic.

I’m glad to have the opportunity instead to point out a couple records that may have slipped through the cracks, but which brought me (and continue to bring me) joy. I’ve been thinking about the first one I have for you because I’ve been reminiscing about the two times I have seen Fiona Apple live. (Aw, remember concerts? Remember seeing other people in person?) The first was just after her debut album Tidal came out, when she joined Sarah McLachlan and others on the inaugural Lilith Fair. I liked her performance a lot, and enjoyed that she and her all-male band all wore dresses.

The second time was five years ago at City Winery in Nashville, as part of the Watkins Family Hour. Sean and Sara Watkins are two-thirds of bluegrass wonders Nickel Creek, and the Watkins Family Hour was their traveling sideshow of like-minded performers. They played mostly covers, as heard on their eponymous debut album, and Apple was one of the singers they tapped. (Others at the show I saw: the great Buddy Miller, the great Benmont Tench and the Secret Sisters. It was awesome.)

It also felt like a one-off, with both Watkins siblings exploring solo work in its wake. (Sara is also in supergroup I’m With Her.) So imagine my surprise when a second Watkins Family Hour album, called Brother Sister, showed up on my radar screen. This one is a lot different – where the first record felt more freewheeling, more ramshackle, this one plays like a polished suite of songs. Where the first record dove into influences, this one is mostly original songs. Where the debut was often more about the guest players, this one is about the Watkins siblings and how they work together.

But forget all that, because this record is gorgeous. However we get these songs, under whatever name the Watkinses want to give them to us, it’s a beautiful gift. “Just Another Reason” is a perfect reason all by itself to treasure this record. Written by the siblings and featuring drums by the superb Matt Chamberlain, the song is a sprightly ode to burning down what holds you back, and leaving it behind. Sean and Sara intertwine their voices beautifully. This one takes flight at the first note and never comes back down.

The seven original songs on Brother Sister run the gamut of emotions. Opener “The Cure” is a slow, folksy number about rising up despite oneself. The wonderful “Lafayette” aches with nostalgia and regret, the harmonies slipping right into your heart. “Fake Badge Real Gun” is as angry as its title, taking on vigilante justice with some sharp verses: “You only see a battle won, you’ll never know the damage you’ve done…” And there are two instrumentals, which showcase the siblings’ interplay on their instruments, Sara’s fiddle snaking around Sean’s guitar, the two acting as one. (There’s a jam at the end of “Miles of Desert Sand” that shows this off as well.)

Three covers round things out, and my favorite of them is Warren Zevon’s classic “Accidentally Like a Martyr.” Zevon’s version is rougher around the edges, but somehow Sara evokes more emotion from one of Zevon’s best lines: “The hurt gets worse and the heart gets harder.” The siblings close things out with Charley Jordan’s “Keep it Clean,” which has the live-in-a-room feel of much of the first record. This one even brings John C. Reilly (yes, Dewey Cox himself) in to shout along.

Brother Sister is short – just over half an hour – but it covers a lot of ground, and by the end of it I’m ready to take the ride again. If this is the start of a new collaborative effort between Sean and Sara, focused on their own songs and performances, consider me on board. I love to hear these two play and sing together, and these songs are so good that I want more right away. I hope we get more soon.

I’ve also been thinking about artistic evolutions, and about songwriters who grow up before our eyes. Naturally I’m referring to Apple again, who has come to her own summit with Bolt Cutters, maturing as a writer and producer in surprising and delightful ways. But I’m also thinking about our second contestant this week, Vanessa Carlton. Among my friends I have a reputation for sticking with artists long after most people forget about them, and I do that to track evolutions like the one Carlton has undergone. In this case it has been more than worth it.

Eighteen years ago, Carlton burst onto the scene with “A Thousand Miles,” as perfect a pop single as I have ever heard. She was 22 at the time, and from the evidence of her lavishly produced debut Be Not Nobody, she was intent on making a splash. And I think she kept that idea of her own work in her mind through her third album, the energetic Heroes and Thieves, five years later. Her first three records are of a piece, and while they are fine slices of piano-pop, she hasn’t sounded like “A Thousand Miles” since.

No, since then, Carlton has focused on making strange, intimate, singular albums of uncommon beauty. Her sixth, Love is an Art, is one of her strangest, most intimate and most beautiful. Produced by Dave Fridmann, who has spent much of his career capturing the odd whimsy of the Flaming Lips, Love is an Art takes a few listens to truly sink in. Nothing here does what you expect it to, songs are built on the smallest and most minimal of foundations, then build to towering climaxes. Carlton’s still-youthful voice never drives this thing – her vocals blend into the beds of pianos and synths, part of the sound instead of apart from it.

In short, it sounds nothing like anything she’s done. But sink into it, allow its many detours to map themselves for you in your mind, and it reveals itself as her finest work. Its songs are small things, tiny dollops of wisdom with strong melodies that don’t trumpet themselves. If you’re looking for a pop hit, there isn’t one. But if you want little moments of stunning beauty – the harmonies on “Back to Life,” for instance, or the swirling crescendo in “I Know You Don’t Mean It” – well, this album is full of them.

The individual songs are much less emphasized than the whole experience here – witness the minute-long “Patience,” and how it leads perfectly into the pretty “The Only Way to Love” – but multiple listens will show the songs to be uncommonly strong too. I’m a fan of “Die Dinosaur,” her fierce anti-boomer anthem, but I’m more a fan of the in-love-with-life pieces here, like “Companion Star” and the title track. The aforementioned “The Only Way to Love” has one of the record’s most soaring choruses, but a song like the closing “Miner’s Canary” ends up sticking with you just as much.

Carlton will be 40 this year, and she has grown into an artist who doesn’t care whether you like her work or not. You can hear that freedom from expectation all over this record – she’s grown beyond the twenty-something pop star she once seemed to want to be. You just don’t make a record like Love is an Art if you’re invested in popularity or acclaim. You make a record like Love is an Art for yourself, because you have to, because this is how the world sings its song through you. I’m so glad she’s following her own muse, and I hope to follow her for many years to come.

Next week, I have no idea. It’s the rare week with no new music I’m interested in. We’ll see what I come up with.

See you in line Tuesday morning.