This is a comfortable bluegrass-based release from siblings with strings.

Label: Family Hour Records/Thirty Tigers
Time: 10 tracks, 35 mins

I don’t know how long Sean and Sara Watkins have been paying their guitar and fiddle together, but I suspect it is most of their lives. Their vocals and playing blend so naturally. Most readers will know that the two initially found fame as part of Nickel Creek, and that was the launch pad to several noteworthy collaborations. Sean Watkins teamed up with Jon Foreman for a fine release as Fiction Family and Sara has been a part of girl trio I’m With Her. They have also found time (eighteen years!) for a residency at LA’s Largo.

After experiencing the frustration of making great, full-sounding albums that lacked something with just two of them live on stage, Sara said of this album that “The primary goal of this record became to see what we could do when it is just the two of us. The arrangements and the writing were all focused on that.”

That stripped-down approach initially made this album feel somewhat lack-lustre, but repeat listens revealed some decent songs. Three are covers and the others, surprisingly, the first they have written together.

As well as having one of the strongest tunes of the collection, “The Cure” is very real as it describes how we struggle to move on to the things we need to, because it is uncomfortable to make those necessary changes: “I’ve been praying for a breakthrough, as long as everything stays the same. I avoided the cure, but it found me anyway.”

There seems to be a backdrop of change in these lyrics. “Just Another Reason,” with its energy and pop sensitivities, develops the theme:  
“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 to get away.”

That escaping also pops up in “Lafayette” and lies at the heart of the longest track, “Miles of Desert Sand,” the story of people suffering in their homeland and needing to get away.
“In the land of milk and honey, there's fruit on every tree
Our feet blistered and bloody, but our children will be free...
All the pain we left behind us is greater than the miles of desert sand,” they sing. We can let them off the lyrical cliché of ‘take my hand’ and ‘promised land,’ as this song puts ordinary suffering people at the heart of what has become known as the immigration ‘issue’.

It echoes the landscape of the title by an extended reflective intro and brisk, hopeful outro. We get more of this soundscape in two wordless tracks that are particularly enjoyable moments, when the two are simply weaving their instruments’ beauty around one another. “Snow Tunnel” has a melody line so strong that they probably thought about putting words to it; while “Bella and Ivan” shows off some almost breath-taking breakneck unison playing as it describes two dogs playing.

This bluegrass-based album’s appeal is very much sharing the couple’s relaxed familiarity. This is like an invitation to join the family.

Derek Walker