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Fiction Family by Fiction Family

Reviewed by Susan Lloyd

"...a collection of songs that bear resemblance to their cousins in the Switchfoot/Nickel Creek catalogues but resound with a striking identity all their own."

They met at a Wilco concert. After trading smiles and some small talk, they exchanged numbers. Then following a few random meetings in a coffee shop near their respective homes they decided to make things a little more “official”.

What sounds like the beginning of a beautiful love story is really the tale of how Jon Foreman and Sean Watkins met several years ago and decided to write some songs together. Over time and coffee, but rarely meeting together to discuss, play or write in the same location (enter the beauty of email to make musical transactions happen in a flash) the unlikely duo created a set of songs they began to feel needed to see the light of day…and the backside of a CD. And so was born Fiction Family’s self titled album released Jan. 20, 2009.

Foreman, of alt-rock Switchfoot fame, and Watkins of the legendary progressive bluegrass band Nickel Creek, never intended to write for the purpose of creating a consumer product but rather for the joy of simply writing music with a musical partner who would bring a new flavor to the song. However, the songs grew in number from three or four to a full album of a dozen. Fans of both bands (and hopefully new fans of Fiction Family) can be thrilled that the album was indeed recorded and released. Fiction Family’s self titled CD is one of the most interesting, dynamic, refreshing albums I’ve had the privilege to hear in a very long time. The musical DNA of both these talented musicians is woven into each song on the album, imprinting them with intelligence, thoughtfulness, and killer musical depth.

Watkins and Foreman trade lead vocals through the track listing and the lion’s share of instrumental work is performed by both men. It’s obvious that both can work their way around an acoustic guitar, but other instruments are heard including a mandolin, a banjo, a sitar, a variety of percussion instruments, and something that sounds very much like the kind of pump organ that’s been in my family for nearly 100 years. Sean’s sister Sara Watkins lends the striking sighs of a violin to the mix as well. The result is a collection of songs that bear resemblance to their cousins in the Switchfoot/Nickel Creek catalogues but resound with a striking identity all their own.

The most radio friendly song, “When She’s Near”, dances very close to some familiar McCartney-esque chord progressions without stealing the Beatle’s sound entirely.
The tune is fresh and catchy with an easy rhythm and some happy, laid back harmonies. Foreman and Watkins made a video to accompany the song and when one orders the deluxe Vinyl set, a bonus DVD featuring the video is included. And might I add, the artwork and photography for that vinyl set, the CD cover, and the CD itself was created by none other than Switchfoot’s touring photographer, Andy Barron. Said artwork is just that… sophisticated art that successfully mirrors the uncontrived ease of the album’s tunes.

Several of the songs that feature Watkins’ smooth tenor on lead remind me of why I need more Sean Watkins in my life, with “Not Sure” being the most outstanding of the lot. The vocal harmonies in “Not Sure” are a prime example of how Watkins’ voice melds warmly into Foreman’s, giving the vocal blend the impression of being from real siblings whose vocal tonalities came from the same gene pool. The song has a strong folk-country vibe which may make it hard for some Switchfoot fans to swallow but the open-minded ones who loved Foreman’s work on his seasonal EP’s won’t mind at all. .

It’s incredibly hard to choose just one of Foreman’s lead songs to highlight because I have a deep affection for the simple yet stirring “War in My Blood”, the story song “Betrayal”, and the afore mentioned “When She’s Near”. But Foreman’s cover of Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw it Away” seems to stay with me long after I’ve listened to it. Haunting, convicting, disturbing, and built on a tonal scale that is reminiscent of a Russian folk song and a French torch song all at once, “Throw it Away” is just gorgeous.
Foreman has taken the vocal and made it completely his own, breathing quietly between verses and singing with a clear conviction that’s incredibly honest.

There are so many sonic treats on this CD that it’s hard to limit a review to just a few paragraphs. The lyrics of “Closer Than You Think” are biting, the echo-y chorus of “We Ride” is inspiring, and the swagger of “Look for Me Baby” is smile inducing. And for fans who love to listen for Foreman’s faith to show up in his lyrics, there’s no shortage of spiritual references.

So what began as a chance meeting of musicians sharing the same billing, hoping to one day write songs just for the fun of it has culminated in what might be the year’s most exciting indie release. Foreman and Watkins have a future together if they choose to continue their partnership, and with songs like these they’ll gain a fan base built from their respective bands and those who love Fiction Family based entirely on its own merits.

Susan Lloyd is a professional photographer in Charleston, South Carolina who specializes in shooting concerts. She holds a degree in Music Education and has worked as a worship leader and as a youth minister. She is passionate about all types of music and enjoys encouraging and supporting bands who seek to glorify God. She also loves movies, animals, traveling, and making new friends. She and her husband have three kids and have been married for nearly 17 years. More info about Susan's photography can be found at www.susanlloydphotography.com or www.susieq3c.wordpress.com