On their effervescent version of The Zombies’ “The Way I Feel Inside,” the opening track of Watkins Family Hour’s Vol. II, Sara and Sean Watkins’ harmonies swirl effortlessly, ascending with astonishing beauty into an ethereal realm. The siblings are joined here by Lucius (Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig), and Sean Watkins’ and David Garza’s fingerpicking lay a rich bed for Sara’s rich violin on the instrumental bridge. The song unfolds cinematically, providing a glimpse of the intimate treatment Watkins Family Hour gives to the tracks on the rest of the album.
These songs have been companions to the group over the past 20 years of their residency at Los Angeles’ Largo club, and so they capture every nuance of them, living in the songs and breathing their own tender phrasing into them. Guests on the album include Fiona Apple, Jon Brion, Jackson Browne, Madison Cunningham, Gaby Moreno, Benmont Tench, and Willie Watson.
The Everly Brothers meet Ricky Nelson on the group’s propulsive take on Ernest Tubb’s “Thanks a Lot,” featuring Brion’s scalding lead on the instrumental bridge, taking the song down a pop-rockabilly road. It’s a bit hard to improve on Jackson Browne’s “The Late Show,” already a haunting ballad about the hopelessness of missed opportunities and the longing for connection, but Watkins Family Hour manages to capture the atmospheric feeling of the song thanks to Sara’s touching vocals, Greg Leisz’s crystalline Weissenborn guitar licks on the bridge, and harmonies from Browne himself. In many ways, this may be the best song on the album.
Tench’s elegant piano floats under Sara’s lead vocal on an achingly poignant take on the “Tennessee Waltz”; this sparse take — her vocals and Tench’s piano alone — may just be the way the song was meant to be played, as a slow, mournful waltz. Leisz’s dobro, Gabe Witcher’s violin, Sierra Hull’s mandolin, and Willie Watson’s vocals combine for an old-time hoedown on “She Left Me Standing on the Mountain.” Apple lends her vocals to the swinging jazz lounge standard “(Remember Me) I’m the One Who Loves You.” The album closes with the gospel-inflected “Grief and Praise,” featuring Cunningham on vocals and all the guests as the heavenly chorus.
Vol. II is a fitting tribute and a celebration of the music that’s shaped the sonic style of Watkins Family Hour. The album is also a breathtaking gift to us, with sparkling instrumentation and dazzling harmonies that enrich us immeasurably with every listen.
Watkins Family Hour’s Vol. II is out Aug. 19 on Family Hour Records.