The Lowest Pair is Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee, two banjo players with a singular and growing vision. Winter moved from Arkansas to Olympia, Washington, after high school and released three solo records on K Records before forming the Lowest Pair in 2013 with Lee, a native of Minneapolis who had honed his chops fronting touring the midwest festival circuit with his band Boys ‘n the Barrels. The pair have released two previous records, 36c, which was produced by Dave Simonett of Trampled by Turtles, and the acclaimed Sacred Heart Sessions, whose recording over two days in an old cathedral in Duluth, Minnesota, added a haunting resonance to the sound.
What began as a singular follow-up to Sacred Heart Sessions has turned into two simultaneously released yet distinctive albums, Uncertain As It Is Uneven and Fern Girl and Ice Man. The former is an expected next step in the pair’s development of their spare style, while the latter adds more adventurous instrumental accompaniments, fleshing out their sound without abandoning its sparseness.
New listeners will discover many familiar touchstones in the Lowest Pair while becoming enmeshed in their own fast-developing and distinctive style. Winters occasionally chirpy voice conveys simultaneous naiveté and knowing, quirky singularity yet with a depth rooted in Country tradition. Lee’s voice offers counterpoint through his gruff tenor. Both banjoists are deeply rooted in the Clinch Mountain style, their stark, chiming notes wrapping around each other in service to the ballad-like lyrics they sing. There’s a temptation to compare them to the now-defunct, highly popular folk duo the Civil Wars, and I’ll do just that here in the service of the fact that the Lowest Pair are far better. The moods they evoke are genuine and lasting.
Uncertain As It Is Uneven is a smart collection of lovelorn ballads evoking a full range of emotion, from yearning to regret. Winter offers a sly sense of knowing in opener “The Company I Keep” when she sings “The twinkle in my eyes can be deceiving / The dimple in my cheek will lead you on”, but then as easily inhabits the naïf voice of “The Sky Is Green”, portraying a young lover ripe to believe whatever lie her man might feed her. Lee takes lead in “Keewanaw Flower”, a modern ballad modelled after those of old that fits right into the tradition, evoking the work of Norman Blake or Bruce Molsky. One of the highlights of the collection comes with “Lonesome Sunshine”, something of a duet apart as the singers take turns playing the roles of estranged lovers mutually dreaming of each other in separation. “Kissing the sleep out of your eyes in my mind / Guess that’s how I’m coming to terms with this lonesome sunrise,” Lee sings while Winter answers, “I been playing make-believe, pretending you’re here with me.” Together, they offer a vivid portrait of regrets for wrong actions taken or right words left unspoken. Meanwhile, “Holy Buckets” with its chorus of “You can take your iPhone and stick it where the sun don’t shine” demonstrates the duo’s lightness and humor.
Fern Girl and Ice Man finds the duo expanding into a band setting. The added musicians fill the space without changing the sparse, haunting quality that defines the Lowest Pair’s core sound. Fans of instrumental flash and flourish may wish to go elsewhere in search of their fix, but they’ll be missing some fine songwriting and spare, haunting playing. The performers’ instrumental breaks here serve to intensify mood, not call attention to individual prowess. It is all in the service of the song with this group. The added guitar and tambourine of album opener “The River Will”, ironically, take the song deeper into the hills, its instrumental jam adding depth as opposed to volume. Similarly, the instrumentation of “When They Dance the Mountains Shake” is full but light as a fleet foot. Only “Spring Cleaning” ups the instrumental volume dramatically when Winter and Lee sing the question “Who am I gonna run to tonight?” If there’s a defining characteristic to the Lowest Pair’s growth on this album it is less the expanded instrumentation they welcome on these songs than their growing confidence as singers. Both “Tagged Ear” and “Stranger” find them merging and twining their voices in new and unexpected ways. Already expert in weaving the sounds of their banjos together, on this album, they take great strides in doing the same with their voices.
Uncertain As It Is Unevern and Fern Girl and Ice Man were both produced by Erik Koskinen, with co-production from Simonett. Both contribute instrumentation as well. While distinct, the two albums flow together well, and as they are being released simultaneously can function as a double album. That’s how I’ve been listening to them anyway, and the flow of the albums’ 22 songs has become as welcome as a worn path through familiar woods nonetheless populated by mystery and myth, holding, perpetual promise for new discovery. The Lowest Pair are developing into one of the most accomplished and rewarding performers on the Americana circuit.