Americana duos are rather like rock power trios – the indie scene is littered with dozens of similarly structured acts who, while unquestionably talented, lack the wide-ranging scope of The Lowest Pair. Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee write and perform songs that not only reach into the far flung past for inspiration but filter it through a completely modern sensibility that, while far removed from the mainstream music scene, nevertheless speaks to timeless human experiences. Winter and Lee have obviously taken great care writing the eleven tracks comprising Fern Girl and Ice Man. It’s the first of two wholly different releases from the duo and, while it maintains close fidelity to the duo’s rootsy approach, there are inklings throughout the release that Winter and Lee are itching, at least a little, to expand their sound. They never introduce any particularly audacious choices regarding instrumentation, but explore different textures here that broaden the songwriting possibilities.
Fern Girl and Ice Man begins with Palmer T. Lee singing “The River Will”, but Winter frequently joins him in some excellent harmony singing. The banjo playing conforms to all of the norms one expects from such playing, but Lee peppers his runs with an added flair that somehow makes the song’s tawdry realities even more immediate. Winter’s vocals on “Tagged Ear” imbue its rich musical depth with grace and a surfeit of unexpected melodicism, but she excels even more on the next song, “Stranger”. This is one of the album’s finest moments thanks to its steady, careful build and the ghostly pallor that it casts without ever dragging the listener down too far. Even if it does, however, the relaxed vitality of a song like “When They Dance the Mountains Shake” will stir any listener’s spirits and leave a smile on their faces. The addition of drums to the band’s sound doesn’t dominate the song, thankfully, but rather lightly enhances its energy level. It’s impossible not to applaud a musical unit who, searching for new wrinkles in what they do shows the unblinking good taste to introduce those elements with an artistic touch.
“Spring Cleaning” summons up a lot of resonate imagery, specific and otherwise, and indulges itself with touches of the panoramic. The expected themes of cleansing and renewal are spelled out and hinted at, but Winter’s wounded vocals sound like the musings of a survivor and the lyrical content reinforces that interpretation in some respects. It certainly isn’t the only possible take. The instrumentation is particularly subtle and spins a delicate melodic spell. The duo’s lyrics reach for a rare moment of universality in the chorus of “Totes” and this short song will hopefully garner much attention. It’s one of the album’s finest lyrics and receives a fine vocal from Lee. “Shuck It” calls on Winter again for another emotive vocal that does an exemplary job of dramatizing the duo’s songwriting. Fern Girl and Ice Man’s concluding track, “How Can I Roll It”, ends the collection on a satisfying note.
If you listen to no other bands or musical outfits in the Americana genre this year, listen to The Lowest Pair. This duo isn’t interested in merely making music of a moment that’s soon forgotten – these are songs well lived in that aspire to last long after their writers have shuffled away.
9 out of 10 stars.