Of the handful of success stories in San Diego music in the last 20 years, most of them have fit into a familiar stereotype, whether in the form of breezy, doofy white-dude folk-pop (Jason Mraz), suburban skate-shop pop-punk (blink-182) or weeded-out reggae-pop (Slightly Stoopid). But Nickel Creek, who rose to prominence in the early '00s thanks to some spectacular vocal harmonies and an unlikely Pavement cover, bucked that trend by digging deep into the American folk and bluegrass tradition, doing vintage-style music with a modern spin well before Mumford & Sons hopped on the bandwagon.
Nickel Creek is now a thing of the past—outside of a recent series of reunion shows—but members Sean and Sara Watkins are still performing together as part of an ongoing monthly residency at Los Angeles' Largo, and out of that their new Watkins Family Hour album was born. To a certain degree, it presents a similar set of sounds that fans of Nickel Creek might already be familiar with: Mostly acoustic instruments, a strong country-and-western influence, and vocal harmonies that could soothe any savage beast.
Broadly speaking, Watkins Family Hour is a gorgeous and gentle album, with simple songs that speak loudly on the strength of their melodies, rather than that of elaborate arrangements. Doing simple music well has always been a strong suit of the Watkins siblings, though, so it's not much of a surprise that they pull it off here. There are moments when their songs swell into something bigger, however, and on a track like "Steal Your Heart Away," the expansion into a bigger country-rock sound suits them beautifully.
This is an ensemble album, however, and many of the key players of the Watkins' Largo shows make notable appearances, the most famous of which is Fiona Apple, whose unmistakable vocals grace the gentle mosey of "Where I Ought to Be." But it's not really about celebrity guest stars on this album—it's about a celebration of roots music in different forms (including the Prairie Home Companion -worthy "Prescription for the Blues," which is the rare skippable track here). There's looseness and warmth about the album that makes it feel like eavesdropping in on a session of friends playing together in a house. That kind of comfort and genuine feeling you just can't fake.