The neo folk duo Penny and Sparrow have gained quite a reputation for impeccably beautiful music since their formation in 2010. Their 2014 album Struggle Pretty was a compendium of palpable introspection and soaring beauty. On March 11th the pair releases their third album, Let A lover Drown You. The release is an outstanding amalgam of their strong DIY ethos and broadening studio production.
Penny and Sparrow is comprises Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke who met as roommates while attending the University of Austin, in Austin Texas. They self released two albums and 1 EP before signing to Single Lock records for their latest effort. The duo have relentlessly toured America building a solid following of fans; while critics have come to appreciate both Becker’s sterling pure vocals and Jahnke’s singular arrangements. The pair has been compared to Mumford and Sons, Bon Iver and Iron and Wine. None of those comparisons really hit the mark as theirs is a unique style. They really fall more in line with the legendary Simon and Garfunkel. Penny and Sparrow exist in the spaces left between contradictions and opposing forces weaving intricate stories with their musical gifts.
This go round Penny and Sparrow utilized producers John Paul White (The Civil Wars) and Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes) in the studio. The pair also approached this recording differently by attempting to make things as simple as they could; just two chairs and a mic. In the past they both worked somewhat autonomously in their areas of expertise, this time they co-mingled responsibilities. Both agree that the overall conceptual idea of the album was that living, loving, and dying are all parts of the journey of life. These aspects are shared experiences that connect all individuals. According to Baxter,” The title is to us a reminder that loving and dying are tied up, ”say Andy, ”It’s the cover page for an album that studies who we love, how they love us back, and how much we give up along the way.” The duo further explores the notion of struggle as something worth experiencing on behalf of a greater objective.
Let a Lover starts off with Finery where the thunderous opening places the spotlight upon the prismatic harmonies of the song. Here revealed is a vocal that is so rich and intimate that it is easy to be mesmerized. The orchestrated minimalism of the accompaniment bleeds emotional impact. The song discusses figurative abuse with bruises that need makeup to cover. The back and forth of injuries inflicted by love or the lack there in a relationship is gripping. Evocative lyrics like ,”you were an empty dressed up finery” drive the point home. The song is simply gorgeous with all the visceral impact of Sufjan Stevens’ neo folk selections.
Bed Down again juxtaposes the richness of the crystalline vocals with the sparse accompaniment. The song is filled with quiet majesty and works in the best traditions of singer/songwriters of the past. The lyrics underline the importance of treasuring the specialness of small moments that stay with someone for a life time. The song touches the heart with both the beauty of the vocals and the instrumentation. The themes speak again to lovers letting each other down and the yearning remembrance of the good times that are gone. There are heartbreaking realizations that the relationship is flawed, “I know you never gave a damn about me…put away that look.” Bed Down is heart rendering.
The enveloping Catalogue is a song that builds and builds to a glorious resolution, starting slowly with a single acoustic guitar and resplendent vocals and then in the middle surges with honeyed strings. The song centers around the lyric, “everything old is sewn up; sometimes you heal… sometimes your ripping my stitches out.” The song catalogues the displays of affection used to convince someone desperate to maintain a relationship that there is still something that remains. The vocals and lyrics reveal a craving for symbiotic perfection in love. The song is stirring and sublime, certainly a “must listen” track on the album.
Makeshift has a more lush orchestration, with the production as ever serving the vocals and lyrics. The beauty of this song hits you viscerally and if you never caught a word of the lyrics you would still have to admire the sonic loveliness of the song. The theme captures the wonder of making things work even when they should not, opposites attract, “I never fall outside our love”. The duo evince an ability to spin simplicity into gold, working with so little and filling the soundscape so fully. The song comes to an end with a wonky oscillating effect.
The song Gold was inspired by a favorite book, Red Rising, where the protagonist loses his wife and turns towards darkness. The song is a bittersweet reminiscence of occurrences in a marriage. It examines the commitment and conflict involved, also the wiliness to change oneself and wondering if it is for the better. I was struck by the reoccurring lyric, “you’re a difficult love, I’m a narrow escape.”
Bourbon feels like it is taking place in the dark night of the soul, with the protagonist finding himself at a crossroads trying to make the right decision. The track ensnares the listener with music that is understated with intricate orchestration. Expressed is the hope of selecting the right path and pondering the cost of decisions,”… no one knows how much we give in…I am overwhelmed.” The song relays an experience many either have encountered or lays in store, it is an impressive selection.
Until Tomorrow is clever as it starts out with the statement,”I’m a forever type of person”. It appears the guy has fallen into love at first sight with a girl who will only commit to his staying until tomorrow. His intent is to stick like glue, which he signals with the lyric, “I bide my time and wait patiently.” The song is delightful in how the protagonist looks to finagle lasting love from a situation that seems bound for the opposite result. It is the briefest song of the collection but is pure romantic poetry, a serenade to perseverance. Until Tomorrow ranks as one of my favorite songs among so many on the release.
The stunning Bon Temps inspiration originates from a conversation that Andy Baxter had with a family friend who survived Hurricane Katrina. The track is bewitching in its storytelling. The acoustic accompaniment provides the drama for the selection. Unfold once again provides all the proof anyone needs to attest to the phenomenal vocal abilities of Andy Baxter. The song is alluring. It plays on a hold and break guitar technique that provides the rhythm to the song. It has a funkier feel as the electronic guitar switches things up from a mostly acoustic album. Each to Each continues to cement the impact of heartfelt earnest lyrics, here examining the changes in relationships that time presents. The song seems on the surface very simple but is actually very complex. The final song, Eponine shared the same name as a character in Les Miserables. The theme is a possible paralleling of the character in the novel with the idea of sacrifice and the ability to say sorry and ask forgiveness. Discussed is the possibility of losing one’s moorings but ultimately remembering what is important and lasting. It is a lovely send off to an outstanding release.
Penny and Sparrow have the uncanny ability to distill heavy subjects into humanizing relatable work. Baxter’s voice is so pure and alluring that he could sing the proverbial phone-book and make it a listening pleasure. Jahnke’s musical chops should never be underestimated. The musical abilities of both men are captivating. Baxter and Jahnke display a musical sensibility way beyond their years of experience. They are a promising pair who deserve all the plaudits and recognition that should come their way. Even if you are not into quiet neo folk music I highly recommend you give this album a listen, you will not regret it. If I didn’t know it would be overshadowed by louder flashier outings, I would say this album has earned an appearance on the end of the year “best of” lists. Let a Lover Drown You has staying power and remains with you long afterward.