What if you erased all the messy male/female stuff of the Civil Wars and got down to business with two dudes who were at least on the surface contradictory? You’d get Penny and Sparrow. The Austin, Texas duo is comprised of vocalist Andy Baxter and composer Kyle Jahnke, two men who met in college and then took to the road in support of homemade recordings, eking out a name for themselves on this coast or that by combining elements of the aforementioned Civil Wars, the Swell Season, Bon Iver, Simon and Garfunkel as well as the music of Stephen Sondheim.
If the songs got a little unnecessarily complicated along the way the pair stripped things down to their barest essence on this latest outing. Aided by producers John Paul White (the Civil Wars again) and Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes) the pair have delivered a collection of songs that are sometimes dark, sometimes gorgeous and tailor made for an audience that seeks out the kind of records that Ray LaMontagne put out early in his career and then cast aside or that Sam Beam never quite has gotten across with Iron & Wine.
These are songs that largely appear to be about intimacy, about things done in darkened rooms (and some not-so-darkened ones) between two people at the heights of their passions or in the ashes of them. An example of the later appears to during the dark expanses of “Bed Down” in which you can almost feel the emotions of one lover grow colder while the emotions of another burn hotter and hotter until the embers flitter away. The same might be said of “Makeshift”, which sounds as though it were cut right in someone’s front room — it’s that boldly intimate and also that, well, tailor made.
It’s hard to know if this kind of thing is sincere of contrived. The skeptical critic, the one who found the just-add-water aura of John Paul White’s unit finds that this smells just a little too strongly of something we’ve all heard before and not necessarily the best parts of it either. The less generous critic might argue that we’ve heard this before: We’ve half-listened to it in coffee shops and dorm rooms and at parties where people stayed too long as the last haze of something from the local dispensary wafted out of the room.
On the other hand, the rugged “Each to Each”, which lumbers like Neil Young and emotes like Beam or LaMontagne, feels new-ish, as though it was born of directed inspiration and not a board meeting.
It’s easy to take shots at an outfit like this, of course, to believe that there’s something less organic than we’d like there to be. Doesn’t matter, though, because audiences will come again and again to something they perceive is real and there’s enough a ruggedness to this duo that capitalism and time will treat them well enough until they break apart and those dedicated fans wait breathlessly for a reunion that doesn’t disappoint.
In the meantime, skeptics can still enjoy “Eponine” and several others here. Just don’t think too hard about the motives and you’ll be fine.