‘One cool autumn night/ lying in the woods, by the fire’; and so begins Letters Kept to Ourselves, the debut full length by Santa Cruz’s brother and sister duo: The Native Sibling. The strong pastoral setting of effective opening song Darkest of Night Skies continues,conjuring a backwoods environment where the fire flickers and the narrator dances beneath the night sky; accompanied by a pair of chords and a guitar decoration which recall Revelator-Era Gillian Welch. In part, such a location sets the tone for rest for of the album, see also Here With Me, and elsewhere The Native Sibling have also made reference to the effect that the loss of their mother had on them. Without wishing to delve too deeply into the imprecise process of attempting to find the artist amidst the art, there would appear to be a trace of this effect amongst the lyrics which move frequently between the familiar but never tired themes of things lost, found, or stolen; of memories and promises made and never broken, as the siblings impart with these letters, one assumes, they otherwise would have kept to themselves. This weaves a thread of melancholy through the fibre of the songs and one that is often heightened through the depiction of these natural surroundings which are frequently illustrated as stark and impartial. For instance, the night sky, despite the presence of the illuminating fire, remains forebodingly the ‘darkest’, much in the same that there is an inherent resignation to the sentiment that one should just ‘let the water rise’ because it is going to anyway. After all, as they say themselves, ‘any morning can be your final flight/and when it’s over the sun may never rise’. Should the sun choose otherwise there is a little that could be done to influence it either way.
The production is suitably sparse, but not in the sense of say Springsteen’s Nebraska. It is to the producer Daniel Mendez and the duo’s credit that they have managed to pull together a record that sounds so layered despite it, for the most part, being restricted to the ‘skin and bone’, of a guitar line, a pair of vocals, a minimal piano accent or counter melody, and the droned bass notes of what sounds like an accordion or a bowed instrument. All the while, the recording remains subtle and crisp, if a little restrained. Occasionally, the momentum builds and songs such as Evening’s Wake or Carry You evolve into the now familiar Mumford-esque ‘chug’. In addition, true to their spiritual Appalachian forefathers, the percussion is essentially primitive: often a pulse on a solitary skin or stomp allowing breathing space for the focus to be on, as arguably it should be, the pair’s vocals. The vocal melodies are effortless and varied; the two timbres of blending beautifully throughout. Moreover, given their relationship, it should be no surprise that the two wield that wonderful yet ineffable quality uniquely associated with sibling harmonies. Should there have been a point of shared infancy then, considering their clear talent for harmony, I can only assume that they likely babbled in the same key.
To this end, and despite the previous comparisons, it is worth highlighting that the two voices are for the most part entirely their own. Kaylee Williams, in particular, has perfected the art of breaking a note at just the right time, never failing to crack a heart or dampen an eye in the process; whereas Ryan’s impressive range forms the cornerstone for many of their memorable melodies. Dipping through their back catalogue, there also appears to be a concerted departure from their 2012 E.P. Waters Too Deep, Words too Shallow, which tended to musically be rooted in more traditional guitar phrases, to more a more contemporary presentation as well as, dare I say it, the further development of their pop-sensibilities. Compare for instance, the banjo led rag of Waters Too Deep’s Wash It All Away, with the aforementioned Carry You or Here With Me. That is not to say the influence of tradition has departed: it is present throughout and stand-out track Oh, Sing and Place To Rest/Keep On Running have deep set roots in the rich history of American music. In this light, perhaps a more obvious comparison would be The Civil Wars which, if I have understood their biography correctly, have an incidental connection to the Williams family. Like The Civil Wars, they successfully accentuate their vocals with regular bursts of harmony: be it lyrical refrains or the usual embezzlement of ‘oh’s’ and ‘wow’s’. To their success, these instances are similarly reserved. Unlike The Civil Wars the joint melisma is a lot more understated which, to this ear at least, is to the overall benefit of the songs and in keeping with the larger presentation of the album.
All in all, there is a lot to enjoy here for fans of the duos referenced earlier and for fans of folk or country that are looking for a modern approach to the historically established traditions and techniques of the genre. This is underpinned by the admirable quality of production that the pair have managed to achieve and the consistent and engaging song writing. Whether they eventually expand on this sound with a larger production, or look to explore it further, they are definitely one to enjoy and watch closely as if Letters Kept To Ourselves is anything to go by they have the rare and invaluable combination of talent and potential in equal measures.
Review by: James Beedie
Letters Kept to Ourselves is out now.