The Austin Chronicle

Younger Than Yesterday

Brothers and Sisters just wasn't made for these times

By Doug Freeman, July 18, 2008, Music

As Austin starts giving way to the flat, barren stretch of road to Houston, east on Highway 290, the metallic sheen of Uncle Bob's Self Storage glints in the dusky sunlight. The atmosphere is bleak inside the gated compound, one side flanked by a field of brown grass and the other by the industrial drabness of a lumberyard. A few straggling movers rush to unload trucks into the outside units before the light fails.

Behind the rows of generic garage doors, memories lie packed in boxes. Accumulated histories gather dust, everyday artifacts not quite abandoned but left to the half-life of homelessness. Halfway down a sweltering hallway, Brothers and Sisters unpacks the past with sonic abandon. Bright harmonies and jangling guitars ring out with an unexpected swell, careening off the concrete and metal facades. The music casts the entire complex in an incongruous glow.

The inside of the 25-by-20-foot practice space looks like a teenager's basement haven. A beaten, faded couch sits opposite a minifridge, freshly drained beer bottles scattered among the myriad of instruments. A crumpled banner of the Beatles stares down on the band from the corner, the only decoration save for a set list roughly staked into the carpet-coated walls with a screwdriver.

A box fan propped in the hallway struggles to circulate air as the Austin sextet bursts into "I Don't Rely," from the band's new sophomore album, Fortunately. With their backs to the doorway, Will and Lily Courtney pitch their harmonies toward the chorus, wisps of the latter's blond hair flirting with the breeze. An unlit cigarette hangs from Ricky Ray Jackson's mouth as he works his pedal steel alongside Daniel Wilcox's twanging lead guitar. Dave Morgan steadies the rhythm on bass while Greg McArthur rattles the thin walls with each drumbeat.

Brothers and Sisters is a band broken from time and place. Their music steeps in nostalgia for idyllic, 1960s California pop rock, where the Beach Boys meet the Byrds to sing alongside the Mamas & the Papas. It's a sound joyfully thriving in the slipstream of anachronism, more at home in the stacks of vinyl likely left sweating and forgotten inside the adjacent storage units.

Time Between

Pulling up a chair outside of Quack's on 38½ Street, Brother Will looks like he just wandered out of Topanga Canyon in the L.A. hills, circa 1970. Large, aviator-tinted sunglasses obscure the parts of his face not hidden by his long hair and thick beard. His domineering build, cloaked familiarly in denim, is offset by a soft smile and gregarious friendliness.

"You know, I wanted to make movies all my life," he says. "I got a video camera when I was 10 and just started making movies with all my neighborhood friends and sister. I really wanted to be a director. It's kind of the same thing with producing records. I never really wanted to be the actor or the lead singer in a band. Some people really thrive off of that kind of attention, but I really just like doing it all, being behind the scenes."

Both Courtney children seemed destined for music from birth. Their mother, award-winning Christian singer Cynthia Clawson (see "All in the Family"), went into labor with Will while recording in a Nashville studio. Lily, two years younger, was in utero on the Grammy stage as her mother performed six months pregnant to music's biggest names.

The family moved frequently when Will and Lily were young, their mother's career and father's writing shifting them between Nashville, Houston, and Louisville, Ky., until they eventually settled in Austin in 1999. Amid the constant relocation, the siblings absorbed a musical education rifling through their parents' piles of vinyl.

"We weren't afraid of our parents' records as kids. A lot of people get turned off by that, and we weren't," attests Will. "In seventh grade, I listened to Randy Newman exclusively, and looking back at it, I'm like, 'Man, what a dork!'"

If Will's California dreamin' originated with his parents' LPs, it was cemented when he moved to L.A. in 2001 to work as a production assistant in the film industry. Music soon took center stage as the glitz and glamour of the West Coast became less tenable with his plans.

"I decided I was tired of doing the L.A. thing," he says. "I mean, I love L.A., don't get me wrong, but it's just so expensive, and the music just wasn't working out the way that I wanted. I thought I was just going to come here and try to do a band and run a record label."

Will returned to Austin summer 2005 with a specific sound reverberating in his head and visions of the collective he wanted to build. He made prospective members show him their record collections, looking for the flourishes of psychedelic country and pop that he could already hear. He started with someone whose taste he knew was impeccably attuned to his own: Lily.

"When I moved here, I told her that we have to be in a band together and forced her to do it," Will laughs. "It was impossible to get her to go out and perform. She's just very shy. And the funny thing is she's a really good actress. She's got this natural ability to perform, but she's so shy that nobody would really know that."

By the end of the year, Will had assembled a loose ensemble of friends and artists to record Brothers and Sisters' eponymous debut, released early 2006 on the Courtney family's own Calla Lily imprint. Their shows were ebullient affairs, cramming the stage with harmonizers and tambourine shakers as they delivered easy back-porch anthems for hazy summer evenings.

My Back Pages

The band breaks from practice and gathers in the parking lot of Uncle Bob's Self Storage. Outside, they're like kids at recess, badgering each other as the conversation ambles freely. Though Brothers and Sisters has trimmed its revolving cast into a core sextet, solidifying the more psychedelic burned tones of their sound in the process, they maintain their casual and open aura.

"We practice every week, and somehow, maybe it's the beer, or maybe it's the friendship, we really just have a good time hanging out with one another," offers Will.

"We're never going to be the band that goes, 'Well, on the third beat of the fourth measure, you're a bit fast.' We don't do that, and we don't practice like that," adds Morgan. "We've played together long enough now that we can anticipate each other a lot of times, but it's more about the feel of the song. It's not ever going be metronome-like perfect."

"We're famous for our looseness," laughs Jackson.

That relaxed roughness is as hallmark to Brothers and Sisters' sound as their sun-ripened harmonies, though Fortunately fires with more confidence and precision. The guitars break from the debut's folk-pop mold into rockier terrain, corralling Crazy Horse riffs behind Will's nasally, Jawhawks croon, while Jackson's pedal steel melds into the arrangements with the ease of the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Fortunately is largely a live product, Will's retro sensibility extending equally to his production of the album. Recorded with Erik Wofford at Cacophony Recorders, the tracks were laid straight to tape and mixed completely on the board. They never touched a computer.

"I wanted that feeling of a live record; I definitely didn't want the Pro Tools, fixed perfect timing. I'm just really tired of that, man," sighs Will. "I think with modern day records, there are people that go for this raw sound, but it's a forced raw sound.

"With us, I wanted to go for that way the old records were made," he continues. "It wasn't like we were trying to be raw, but with those older records, when the bands would just go in and play, there's a spirit there that I feel is missing from records and culture as a whole. There's this staleness and mechanical thing going on now with art. We weren't trying to be superraw, punk rock. I just want it to be the way it used to be."

With 14 songs clocking almost an hour, Fortunately is a throwback to the halcyon days of epic LPs in every sense, and the group plans to follow the CD release with a four-sided, double vinyl edition by the end of summer.

"It's so weird that technology has gotten so far, and we're regressing in the sonic qualities of music. It's just so strange to me that we're settling for crappy digital quality," says Will. "It's hard to balance it all. The goal is to make it on record, and for the people that care about sitting down in their chair and listening to it with their headphones, I want it to be there for them, because that's the way I do it. And even though we might be in the days when nobody wants a full album, well, I do."

Nostalgia is an elusive mistress, the phantom lure of memory and imagination that draws its power from its very unattainability. Unpacked, reality never quite melds with the vision, time breaking the contours of context and revealing what was dreamed lost to be as much a wish for how things should be rather than what they are or ever were.

The band retreats back to their storage unit, and as the setting sun streaks across the lot, the call of "California" coats the fading day. Will's voice lilts with longing as Lily's soft hum shades the verses:

"I dream about you every night, in spite of what they said,

It's worth the fight, for this picture in my head ...

That's the way I want it to end."  

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