Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee, a.k.a. The Lowest Pair, take their name from a John Hartford poem, so perhaps it’s not surprising to find that both these CDs are largely banjo-dominated. Both clearly know their clawhammer from their three finger roll, but don’t expect too much Warp-9 Scruggs picking here. While the lyrics here tend to the contemporary and sometimes the surreal, much of the core banjo and guitar work is rooted in older styles, though the banjo sometimes detours into tones and sequences a long way from old-timey. Or, come to that, the Mumfords. In 2016, they chose to release two CDs – Uncertain As It Is Uneven and Fern Girl & Ice Man – simultaneously. While either CD stands perfectly well alone, and there are subtle but significant differences in tone and technique between them, it seems appropriate to consider these “two windows into the growing and changing world of The Lowest Pair” (to quote the press release) together.
Uncertain As It Is Uneven is probably pretty much what you’d expect from their earlier releases, if you’re familiar with their work. Minimal instrumentation (mostly guitar and banjo), and bluegrass-tinged vocals, applied to songs that veer more towards modern country. Palmer T. Lee’s vocals are more than adequate, but it’s Kendl Winter’s voice that will probably make or break the CD for some. Personally I mistrust reviews that rely on comparisons to other artists, and in any case I find it hard to think back to a female singer who’s very close. Peggy Seeger, perhaps, in folk/old-timey mode, or (at a stretch) Dolly Parton with much less vibrato and a more ‘authentic’ raw bluegrass tone. Not everyone will like it, but those who do like it will really like it. I can’t say she sounds like Hedy West, but if you like her vocals, you’ll probably be comfortable with Kendl’s, too. And the frequent harmonizing between the two of them is often exquisite.
The songwriting credits in this case, are more or less even: five tracks written by Kendl Winter, four by Palmer T. Lee, and two credited to The Lowest Pair. The list of personnel is as follows:
- Palmer T. Lee: Guitar, Banjo, Harmonica & Vocals
- Kendl Winter: Guitar, Banjo & Vocals
- Eric Koskinen: Bass & Lap Steel
- Barbara Jean Meyers: Fiddle
- Eamon McLain: Cello
Kendl Winter’s ‘The Company I Keep’ is, despite the banjo, more in contemporary singer/songwriter mould than some of the other tracks, with prominent guitar. However, ‘Keeweenaw Flower’, written by Palmer T. Lee (who takes lead vocal) sounds almost traditional. In fact, if you told me that it was a Carter Family song, I might believe you. Acoustic guitars and no banjo on this one, a very catchy chorus with attractive harmonies. ‘Lonesome Sunrise’ is credited to The Lowest Pair and is very much modern country, with guitar and banjo augmented with fiddle and bass. Very nicely done.
Kendl’s ‘Like I Did Before’ is unusual in that instead of guitar and banjo, it features two banjos and a nicely restrained bass part from Eric Koskinen. Unusual, but good enough to make me wonder why it isn’t done more often. Modern country-ish with a hint of blues in the structure.
Palmer’s ’37 Tears’ includes two banjos and his own harmonica behind close harmony vocals. A somewhat old-timey arrangement, but the lyrics are far from pastiche, and the harmonica is nearer to country than to 60s protest chic.
Kendl’s ‘The Sky is Green’ has a lyrical theme that combines a somewhat folky structural simplicity with a hint of bleak surrealism. Beautifully done. In sharp contrast, Palmer’s ‘Mason’s Trowel’ includes some fast but not showy banjo picking and a pacey tune in a minor key. I particularly like the lyrics.
‘Holy Buckets’ is the other song credited to Lowest Pair. I find the lyrics somewhat enigmatic, perhaps because I have some difficulty making out some of them through Kendl’s idiosyncratic vocals. I can’t get the tune out of my head, though, and I’d probably sing it myself if I was sure of the words. I have no such problems with Kendl’s ‘Dreaming of Babylon’ though, and I love the extended banjo break, in some places with harmonics rendering an almost harp-like tone and in others almost freeform. Perhaps the most adventurous track on this CD, and quite gripping.
Kendl’s ‘Pretend It’s True’ is more conventional, with simple but effective lap steel and fiddle. If you like modern country, this won’t offend your ears at all, though Kendl’s vocal never loses that high, string-band-nourished edge.
Palmer’s ‘By Then Where Will That Be’ finishes the CD with more dual banjo and a solid grounding from Eamon McLain’s cello. Another hint, perhaps, of things to come.
The second CD, Fern Girl & Ice Man seems to go further along the road towards ‘things to come.’ The personnel list isn’t much different, but the range of instruments has expanded to include percussion and another guitarist, though there’s no cello this time. The press release suggests that the CD might be “what it might sound like … to be supported by a full band…” and while the instrumentation remains pretty sparse, there is nevertheless a detectable thickening of the sound, including some unobtrusive production tweaks. The homely embroidery effect of the ‘Uncertain As It Is Even’ artwork has given away to more modernist artwork by Kendl Winter, who is also credited with writing nine of the eleven tracks, the other two being credited to Palmer. However, Palmer’s voice and instrumental work are nevertheless as integral to the album as they are to Uncertain As It Is Uneven. Personnel list is as follows:
- Kendl Winter: Banjo, Guitar, Vocals, Tambourine
- Palmer T. Lee: Guitar, Banjo, Vocals, Harmonica
- Eric Koskinen: Bass, Drums, Lap Steel
- Dave Simmonette: Guitar
- Barbara Jean Meyers: Fiddle
The echo on the first track, ‘The River Will’, is a little overcooked for my taste for the first few lines, though it’s fine once the instruments come in. The song contains some of my favourite lines: for instance, “Where were you last Friday when I was feeling thirsty and drinking from the fare-thee-well?” Strangely, both this and ‘Waiting For The Taker’ – though they’re very different songs – remind me melodically, just a little, of Jackson C. Frank’s ‘I Want To Be Alone’, though maybe it’s just that some of Frank’s writing, often lyrically opaque, also grew out of his awareness of rootsier music. (His seminal 1965 eponymous LP even included a version of ‘Kimpy’, a song well known to banjo players.)
‘Tagged Ear’ and ‘Stranger’ are, despite the interplay between guitar and banjo, entirely ‘modern’ lyrically and melodically, yet the vocals (especially Kendl’s) have a ‘high lonesome’ edge that contributes to the melancholic atmosphere, though the harmonies on ‘Stranger’ are just a little too harsh and mannered for my taste. The wailing harmonica on ‘Stranger’ is entirely appropriate to the song, though. However, ‘When They Dance the Mountains Shake’ picks up the pace a little and adds drums, bass and fiddle to the duo’s banjos and vocals, and even inserts country dance references into a deceptively complex lyric.
‘Spring Cleaning’ balances somewhere between folky singer/songwriter and modern country, but is distinguished by the interplay between banjo and guitar, with just a little electronic enhancement. ‘Totes’ is the first of the two songs on this CD by Palmer T. Lee and demonstrates that he too is capable of some adept wordplay: “…we are not our ex’s, we are not our expectations…we are not estranged, we are no longer even strangers…”
The very distinct left/right speaker separation between pairs of instruments and pairs of vocals on ‘Trick Candlelight’ sounds good through decent earphones and on my hi-ish-fi set up, but detracts from the sound on poorer kit such as my lo-fi laptop speakers, with the banjo rather overwhelming the guitar. I guess it’s reasonable to aim for the best sound assuming that the music will be heard on good equipment, but I wonder if anyone still keeps cheap speakers in the studio to hear how the final cut will sound on low end audio? At any rate, to my (admittedly elderly) ears the sound quality on the other album actually wins out overall for clarity. That said, sound quality is probably much more subjective than musos tend to assume, so maybe your mileage will differ. The song is excellent, by the way, with solid but unobtrusive lap steel and bass.
‘Shuck It’ has a typically acerbic lyric by Kendl. The sparing use of intermittent guitar behind the banjo lifts the track with some variation of pace.
‘Sweet Breath’ is the other composition on the album by Palmer, and is the fastest tune here. The interplay between guitar and banjo on the introduction is perhaps the nearest thing to bluegrass on the album, though it’s filtered through a rock sensibility that reminds me slightly of the Eagle’s during their ‘Desperado’ phase.
‘Waiting for the Taker’ is a nice tune with some attractive octave doubling of banjo lines and some minor vocal production tweaks that nevertheless suggest more ambitious things to come.
‘How Can I Roll’ is credited to Kendl but owes a lot lyrically to ‘Nine Pound Hammer’ (also known as ‘Roll on Buddy’). The interpretation, though, is a long way from Merle Travis or Doc Watson, and the tune doesn’t resemble any other version to have crossed my path. It works very well, anyway.
In conclusion, these two albums are not quite what I expected. They’re rooted in traditional forms, of course. After all it’s hard to avoid sounding old-timey or bluegrass-y when there’s so much emphasis on the banjo in virtually every song, and even more so given Kendl’s distinctive and uncompromisingly old-school vocal technique. (Not that her approach is purely ‘technical’: on the contrary, there’s a degree of emotionality in her delivery that in some cases will either repel or enthral.) Yet the songs have, in general, a very contemporary resonance given added depth by that unexpected context. While there’s solid musicianship presented here, it’s very different from the flash that tends to dominate in bluegrass: less velocity, more invention.
These albums won’t appeal to all traditionalists, and the instrumentation and vocal stylings might not appeal to all fans of modern country. However, these are songs that deserve to be better known, even if you’re not particularly a fan of old-time, or bluegrass, or even country. And you might even find that you like the banjo more than you thought. Certainly I look forward personally to hearing more of them, and plan to take a look at some of their earlier work, together and separate.
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‘Mason’s Trowel’ – official video: