I’m not averse to the occasional joke about banjos and banjoists, but when it comes to The Lowest Pair, I start to feel guilty. Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee are both such talented and innovative banjo players – and much else besides. I enthused about their 2016 albums Uncertain As It Is Even and Fern Girl & Ice Man and I leapt at the chance to review The Perfect Plan, due for release on April 24th 2020, which sees them take a step or two further towards a full band sound.
As on the 2016 albums, both contribute vocals, acoustic guitar, and banjo, though this time Kendl also plays some electric guitar. She takes most of the lead vocals on the album, unsurprisingly since all but one of the ten songs on the album are credited to her. However, Palmer’s Enemy Of Ease is another fine song, and fits in well with the other tracks.The other musicians on the album seem to represent a more mainstream country constituency, with percussion by J.T. Bates and Nate Van Fleet, bass by Miwi La Lupa and Dean Shakked, mandolin by Derek McSwain, electric guitar by Joey Capoccia, pedal steel and Mellotron from Mike Mogis (who also produced), and keys by Ben Brodin.
Here’s the track list.
- The delicate interplay of guitars, and Kendl’s characteristic lead vocals on ‘How Far I Would Go’ perfectly blended with Palmer’s harmonies, could easily have come from one of the earlier CDs, and shade imperceptibly into the banjo introduction to the next track.
- However, that second track, the current single ‘Too Late Babe’, picks up into a pacey country rock tune with heavy percussion.
- ‘Wild Animals’, though still dominated by a more traditional banjo pick, introduces organ as well as percussion. It’s a rock production with the banjo sometimes veering into a tone and modality that almost recalls a 60s/70s rock band obsession with the sitar.
- ‘Shot Down The Sky’ also features a layered production where guitars, banjo, mandolin and pedal steel weave in and out behind a fascinatingly oblique lyric. If country music was always like this, I’d listen to it all the time.
- ‘Castaway’ is largely driven by guitar and banjo: it’s a more conventional country song but a very, very good one.
- ‘Morning Light’ is one of Kendl’s songs, but the Palmer’s vocals are equally prominent and seem to take the lead line. One of the least country tracks on the CD, but no worse for that.
- ‘We Are Bleeding’ is omitted from the track listing on the sleeve, though it’s included on the lyric sheet, so presumably the omission is not intentional. Fascinating time changes and instrumental interplay, with an acapella intro.
- Palmer’s ‘Enemy Of Ease’ has an unabashedly country feel, with prominent pedal steel and mandolin. The lyric, though, is pure Lowest Pair. Excellent.
- The lyric of ‘Take What You Can Get’ reminds me obscurely of Mary Chapin Carpenter (but that’s a compliment, in my book), and the country rock arrangement would probably fit well on one of Carpenter’s albums, though Kendl’s singing style and voice is very different. Still, a fine song.
- The percussion and electrified instruments on ‘The Perfect Plan’ are less prominent than elsewhere, but still take the song well beyond the rootsy Americana of their earlier albums.
Though it’s clear that Palmer T. Lee’s contributions are crucial to the ongoing success of The Lowest Pair, this album is mostly dominated by Kendl Winter’s vocals. Her singing, technically proficient though it is, still leans heavily on most of the tracks here to a style more associated with bluegrass and old-timey music, and in that sense the The Perfect Plan could be seen as continuing to build on a musical tradition that includes singers and instrumentalists as diverse as Jean Ritchie, Peggy Seeger (and her siblings, instrumentally speaking), Hedy West and Guy Carawan. If that doesn’t appeal to you – or if you hate the sound of the banjo or anything that might be defined as Americana! – this album may not be for you. But you’ll be missing something unique and exciting if you don’t follow their journey. As for me, I’ve just realized that I’ve missed a couple of solo projects they put out in 2018, so I’m off to see if I can track those down. And I’m starting to wish I hadn’t sold my banjo…
Artist’s website: thelowestpair.com/home