Austin-made singer-songwriter duo Penny & Sparrow dwells in the spaces left between
contradictions and opposing forces. In fact, it’s where they’re most at home.
As the title of their latest album, Let A Lover Drown You, suggests, they know
intimately the ideas of using pain as a barometer of passion and giving as a
means of gaining.
vocalist Andy Baxter (lover of books and climate-controlled coffee shops) and
composer Kyle Jahnke (seeker of adventure, preferably outdoors), sacrificed
most semblances of comfort and certainty in their lives to take their
self-released recordings they made after meeting as University of Texas
roommates to the next level: full-time, D.I.Y., coast-to-coast touring.
almost luminescent harmonies paired with cutting, contemplative songs, inspired
by a musical grab bag of Simon and Garfunkel, Slim Whitman, The Swell Season,
Bon Iver, even Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, earned the duo a nationwide
legion of fans; many bordering on, if not, obsessed. Just ask their wives who
tour manage them.
But until recently,
Kyle and Andy thought of their respective talents, words and melody, as
elements on “separate continents” that they fit together—Andy’s voice and
lyrics an audible sunbeam appearing in a dark and dusty room; Kyle’s lean, yet
lush arrangements following unpredictable paths with acrobatic flourishes
layered over grounded grooves.
There are things that we ought to be afraid of. Things that, rightfully, send cold sweat
nightmares. For kids it can be anything
from the darkness under a bed, or strangers, or crossing a busy street. For adults it might change face a bit and
become things like sickness, job security, or heartbreak. And sometimes, when you point the flashlight
right at the thing you’re terrified of, you declaw it. You take its mask off and it returns to being
an empty, boring closet with nothing inside to harm you. Or maybe the light shows an unexpected beauty
in the place of what you thought was horrific. Other times, though, you aim the
beam straight into the pitch black and the thing that you prayed wasn’t real,
the one with all the teeth, is right there smiling at you.
Texas born duo Penny and Sparrow know these things, and in
their 2017 release Wendigo they turn
the lights off on purpose and hunt for what’s really there in the dark. With a musical maturity that has been honed
over half a decade and hundreds of live shows, Kyle Jahnke and Andy Baxter are presenting
their most ambitious album yet. Rejoined
by Chris Jacobie (producer and engineer of Creature,
Tenboom, Struggle Pretty & Christmas Songs) Penny & Sparrow delve
into numerous new and diverse sound landscapes throughout Wendigo, without sacrificing the sharp honesty that’s accompanied
their career thus far.
From the quarter kick laden “Salome and Saint Procula”, to
the pitched-down vibe of “Kin” and all the way to the hypnotically instrumental
portion of “There’s a lot of us in here”, it’s obvious that Wendigo is unafraid to be sonically
experimental. Thematically, Baxter’s
word bank reaches further than on previous albums. From the trilogy of songs humanizing the Grim
Reaper (“Visiting” “Smitten” “Moniker”) and cascading down to the Urban Legend
love song “Wendigo”, the intersection of daily grit and supernatural fable is
analyzed in depth. On the back half of
the record, Jahnke’s melodic leadership extends even deeper into beauty and
surprise. With seamless track fusion from “A kind of Hunger” to “Let me be Crucial”, Jahnke
has invented a 6 song musical terrain that is both complex in its varied
offerings and impressive in its execution.
Arriving a year and a half after Let a Lover Drown You, their Muscle Shoals recorded, John Paul
White produced last album, Wendigo was
born from healing and heat. Having moved
to Florence to record in the Single Lock studio, Baxter and Jahnke found
themselves with time off in their first boiling Alabama summer. Exhausted from
touring and life-weary in general, the duo turned to songwriting for catharsis.
A makeshift recording rig was set up in
the living room of their shared home and the duo began workshopping song after
song. Over the course of that summer,
while their wives (and a dog named Gator) bustled around the microphone during sessions,
the bones of the record were set. The
original plan was to listen to the rough tracks and eventually redo everything
cleaner. That desire changed though as
they fell in love with the honest sounds of cooking, old door hinges,
silverware clinking, and the rest of their Alabama home noise. As affection for the demo’s grew, Baxter and
Jahnke realized that they wanted to keep as much of them as possible. Thus,
listening to Wendigo is hearing the honest
soundtrack for a real season in the life of two families. The footsteps, the creaking and the din of
supper prep heard throughout the songs all reinforce the sense of integrity
that has long been a staple of the band. Releasing on September 1, 2017, Wendigo will be Penny and Sparrow’s 5th
full-length album. Beginning as
therapeutic demos in northern Alabama and ending as a fully realized project at
Jacobie’s home studio in San Antonio,TX, this record leaves the duo smirking
and feeling accomplished.
The creature with which this album shares its name is a
shape shifter. One moment it looks
completely normal and the next it’s all fangs and gore. In an instant it can slip it’s skin and go
back and forth from ominous and ugly to hope and lovely. Life can be like that. Hell, we can be like
that. Knowing this, Penny and Sparrow
offer Wendigo as the flashlight you
can arm yourself with. Use it to see
what’s worth fearing and what was actually beautiful all along. Shine it into whatever patch of darkness
scares you. For better or worse, at
least you’ll know what’s there.