Austin’s Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke have remained mostly underground for about half a decade, releasing three projects independently with producer Chris Jacobie. But catching the attention of the Civil Wars’ John Paul White and Alabama Shakes’ Ben Tanner led to a successful 2016 marked by the release of breakthrough Let a Lover Drown You (produced with White and Tanner) and tour spots with the likes of Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors.
Their raw and honest, yet paradoxically full-sounding production has created open breathing space for their intimate lyricism and gorgeous Vernon & Garfunkel harmonies. Though some have found Penny & Sparrow’s aesthetic to be a bit on the serious side, melancholy even, their grasp of elegantly simple melody and harmony is hard to deny.
Their newest effort, Wendigo, picks up where their previous release left off. Reuniting with their producer Jacobie, Penny & Sparrow’s somber mood is still the same, but their lyrical and musical exploration bring them to their most ambitious state thus far.
Writing first-person narratives from other people’s point of view is something Baxter (the main lyricist) has practiced in the past, especially on their Les Misérables homages “Valjean”, “Fantine”, “Eponine”, and on this release, “Javert”. But never has it been as much of a focus as on Wendigo.
“Javert”, which features a refreshingly lower register vocal performance, is a prayer from Victor Hugo’s antagonist admitting his inability to accept love and mercy when facts and law seem more tangible and important. At just a minute and a half, the vignette evokes such imagery from the literary classic that anything longer would seem unnecessary.
This theme runs throughout many of the tracks as Baxter uses allusion-filled lyrics to paint pictures from literary, and more specifically Biblical, sources. “There’s a Lot of Us in Here” draws from the story of a demon-possessed man encountered by Jesus as he makes the plea: “Dispossess me of all the shit that keeps possessing me.” And the following track “Salome & Saint Procula” refers to the daughter of King Herod and the wife of Pontius Pilate in a tale of how one evil choice could taint a person’s entire legacy.
The most impressive narrator on the album though comes in the trilogy “Visiting”, “Smitten”, and “Moniker”, songs narrated by the personification of death, or the grim reaper. In looking at these songs, it is important to recognize Baxter and Jahnke’s Christian worldview when interpreting lines like “I’m just like you / I bend the knee” and on “Smitten”, talking to a baby Jesus, “When you’re old enough to speak / You will undo me.”
Throughout this trilogy of songs, subtle French horn and slide guitar add to the sobering presence of death, a character used on the album as part of a discussion of the things our society fears, and whether or not that fear is validated. While there is plenty of talk of the fear of death, fear of change is another topic that pops up on tracks like “Kin”, a harsh reprimand from God to the church. “You’re being a coward / Only fearing your changed mind”, the narrator pronounces in haunting harmony as he critiques using religion to push others away or to align with a political party.
The creative muscles on Wendigo aren’t only flexed in the lyrical department. Because following “Kin” is a six-song medley of sorts perhaps modeled after side B of Abbey Road. With two exceptions, the songs on the back half of the record run below the two-minute mark. In fact, “Let me be crucial” is just 38 seconds. It’s not perfect. But the musical ideas here ranging from a chorale (“Well you know it ends Well”) to the waltzy verse of “Moniker” followed by a Sufjan-esque horn-filled interlude make for intriguing listening best paired with a glass of red wine and a light crackling fire.
It could be argued that Penny & Sparrow can be inaccessible, or at least hard to connect with. Their cold vocal harmonies and often cerebral lyrics can seem off-putting at times. In fact, it took this writer about four or five listens to connect to Wendigo. But as the album ends with the rushed realization, “I’m lost, I’m lost, I’m lost, I’m lost,” all the truth-seeking and brain-picking takes on meaning as you realize these two guys from Austin, like Bono, and like many of us, still haven’t found what they’re looking for. And that is what pushes their music forward.