A few years ago the Oh Hellos came out with an album full of mind-blowing sibling harmonies that soared up my end of the year list. I honestly never thought I’d hear anything like it again. Then last week in an ordinary day trudging through the blog email I ran across this phenomenal album Letters Kept to Ourselves by The Native Sibling. They hail from California but created the album in Seattle. The soul of their music drips from nearly every lyric. Not only does their sound blend perfectly, they’ve captured an ethos in their music that almost defies description. They mourn together. They celebrate together. They sing of life together. It’s rich and beautiful. I bought the album right after my second listen.
From the opening chords of “Darkest of Night Skies” there’s a heavy and hopeful quality to this album. Of course the sibling harmonies are the best part, but truthfully both brother and sister have voices that stand alone as solo vocals. When they unite, they work together for good. The sound is adventurous, highlighting the key lyric about dancing and living under the night skies. It will really resonate well with people who love being outside in the cool autumn air.
The way Ryan and Kaylee Williams pass the melody back and forth on “Carry You Home” is absolutely addictive. The piano and guitar driven track yields perfectly to crystal clear vocals. Kaylee soars on this one. The “gang” harmonies surrounding the chorus really help to punctuate a feeling of being “caught up.” The salvific actor in the song is not clear, but I have my suspicions (hinted at in the early track reference to personal sin.)
Ryan’s lead vocal on “Here With Me” is perfect for the raw, hard-working ethos of the song. It’s about “dirt roads and gray skies” and enduring life with a partner. It’s endearing and sweet. It may also, like the previous track, have a spiritual element. The best part of the song is its easy instrumentation that perfectly highlights the vocal blending. I LOVE when Ryan sings lead and Kaylee harmonizes. It was just meant to be.
The instrumental intro on “Let the Water Rise” makes butterflies in my stomach that harken back to the first time I heard Fleet Foxes. It reminds me why I love this genre of music so much. The instruments are so raw and real and so perfectly performed. Then, in deft subtlety, Ryan comes into the track with a tone completely different than that of the previous track. It’s a gentle, walk-on-the-clouds kind of track befitting a lullaby more than a traditional song. The message of the song seems to be about perseverance and staying alive. I’m sure there’s a deeper layer of meaning to it, but if the music conveys the right emotion to me, it’s simultaneously encouraging and comforting.
Kaylee’s strong lead on “Evening’s Wake” reminds me of a cross between Maggie Heath of the Oh Hellos and Joy Williams (formerly of the Civil Wars). Those are some pretty impressive vocalists and she can definitely hang with them. When Ryan joins her and the instruments crescendo, it’s a clearly more “epic” track than others on the album. There’s something of a gospel feel to this track and I can’t figure out why. The lyrics are mysterious, seemingly about something that happens after dark. If I had to guess it’s about temptation of some kind. In any event it’s soulful and moving. Feel free to put your impressions of the track in the comments below.
“Right Here for You” is a promise in a song. It’s a little more complicated than meets the eye, but seems to be about going through life together. The sound is most clearly in the “folk” category complete with some pretty sweet melody turns.
Potentially my favorite song on the album (which is nearly impossible to have just one) is “Place of Rest/Keep on Running.” It’s about perseverance and love and endurance and seeking truth. It’s about seeking and loving and living. It’s the kind of thing that keeps me going with music. The way that Kaylee delivers complicated melody lines seemingly effortlessly shows just how talented she is. And, in a lot of ways, it shows that this music is not merely a performance for The Native Sibling. It’s a real and raw expression of their humanity. This is the most artful of a profoundly beautiful album. “Keep on running honey!” (Although in point of fact, I do not think it’s meant as encouragement. I think it’s a corrective of someone who runs from problems.)
My other favorite song is “Oh Sing,” a real hard-beat toe tapper. It’s the most sing-along track on the album, perhaps intentionally so. It conjures the sort of Appalachian fire circle “family sing-along” image that probably never actually happens in real life. But the song idealizes and illustrates it nicely. It’s about, again, a relationship between two people, but the vocal blending between Ryan and Kaylee makes it feel familiar and sweet. The imploring “when I come back will you be there?” is magnetic, drawing the two together in a timeless cry for connection, “oh sing my soul.”
“Skin and Bone” has the album title lyric in it. It’s a layered, deeply rich song that is so fresh and engaging that it feels like the mountains. It seems to be about the experience of using letters to absolve emotions, then hiding those letters for no one to ever read. I can totally relate to this. “All Remains” is, I think, a mourning song about a girl mourning the death of her father. What makes it powerful for all of us is that it’s rich with emotion. The listener can almost feel the tears welling up as Kaylee sings the emotional lines in the latter part of the song. It’s an emotional audio picture of the highest order. It is breathtaking in the least cliché way I could possibly say it.
The album is a masterpiece. I had to listen to it several times over before I could even find the words for what I was hearing. It’s not just good folk music – it’s the sonic capturing of troubled, celebrating, seeking, loving souls. It’s the kind of art work that is meant to last. It’s not a fad and it’s not a gimmick. The Native Sibling is one of the most beautiful, powerful, and engaging bands that I’ve encountered in the past three years. Please do not accept any categories for this band. They are a must hear, must own, must love band.