Photo: Noah Tidmore / Missing Piece Group

Penny and Sparrow Sprinkle Some R&B on Their Folk Music with ‘Finch’

Austin folkies Penny and Sparrow explore low key R&B textures and add a bit of soulful punch to their lovely sound on Finch.

Penny and Sparrow
I Love You
2 August 2019

Finch, the latest from Austin-based duo Penny and Sparrow, finds the group exploring low key R&B textures in addition to their folk-oriented wheelhouse. Lead vocalist Andy Baxter, with his soulful, gospel-tinged singing style, is surprisingly suited to this shift. His delivery combined with tasteful production from Chris Jacobie and an assist from Mitchell Webb makes Finch a smooth and often romantic listen.

That is evident right from the start, with the quiet “Long Gone”. Baxter croons “When do you want my love / Do you wanna do-over this life?” over a bed of subdued electric piano-style keys. Later the song adds more subtle instrumentation including strings and soft drums, but the focus stays right on Baxter as he repeats, “Make it looooong gone.” “Eloise” goes for folk-soul, with a short and simple acoustic guitar riff courtesy of the other half of the duo, Kyle Jahnke. It also has a quiet, slowly thumping beat, while Baxter, with Jahnke providing backing harmonies, sings strange but compelling lines in falsetto. “We saw him resurrect in a muscle car”, “I’m blushing a shade of licorice”, and “a meaning-well American Abbatoir” don’t seem to connect directly, but they certainly are memorable.

This gift for poetic phrasing comes through in other songs as well. Half the time on Finch I wasn’t sure if Baxter was just stringing together interesting lines or telling oblique narratives. But the underlying music gives off a vibe that usually holds the songs together. Slow, quiet closer “Gumshoe” gives us “Your legerdemain is a true Whodunit”, while the folk ballad “Hannah” is full of these, including “One day, in your overalls / Belated free agent” and “Heavy, like a boulder falls / Irradiant, maybe / You faded into light, meandered off.”

A lot of these songs are slow and silky, so it’s notable when Penny and Sparrow push the tempo. “Don’t Wanna Be Without Ya” is a brisk track with actual drums, guitar, and bass. The chorus “I don’t wanna be without ya / If you start over, can I redo mine too?” is a big sing-along. The song features a real guitar solo along with whoops and shouts in the background, and the coda closes out with the weird but singable refrain “Menagerie, imagine me, babe.” It’s like the Lumineers dropped in for a song, but it’s a welcome shift that breaks up the record nicely.

The middle of the album finds the duo stretching lyrically. “Bishop” is a simple folk song driven by lightly strummed guitar but accentuated with strings and French horns. But the lyrics are an interesting combination of hymn-like and outer space. The chorus goes “Heal me by degrees / Fear is founded, be thou grounded,” but the verses include references to rockets, spaceships, and cosmic lust. “Recuerda” may be the most romantic song on the album, a gentle ode to a bilingual lover while the two are lying together in bed. Baxter murmurs the lyrics, like ‘We can choose happy now, happy now” and “I know a kiss / was a somersault / What my stomach did / Memory followed.” Then there’s the kicker, which sounds ridiculous as text but absolutely works in the song: “Recuerda, recuerda / Remember, remember / You sleep with an accent.”

Finch could’ve used another upbeat song to complement “Don’t Wanna Be Without Ya” in the album’s back half. The four songs following “Recuerda”- “Hanna”, “Stockholm”, “It’s Hysterical”, and “Gumshoe”, are all folk songs on the slow side, and although they each have their strong points, it makes the album kind of drag towards the end. On the positive side, this is only a 35-minute long record, so it never becomes a slog.

Penny and Sparrow’s combination of folk and R&B is an interesting and effective one. Baxter’s voice is uniquely suited to the style, and the subtle production touches add to the record’s atmosphere. Finch doesn’t seem like the kind of album that listeners will put on all the time, but it’s very good if you’re in the right kind of mood.

RATING 7 / 10