Instead of dueling it out, The Lowest Pair picks banjos and sings in perfect equilibrium. Despite the duo’s midwestern origins and current home base of Olympia, Washington, their music is coated in the sparkling dewdrops of the Appalachian dawn. It will resonate with any person who has even the smallest place carved out in his or her heart for old-time roots music. It’s not hard to imagine how The Lowest Pair finds itself right at home on the folk festival circuit throughout the United States.
You’ll be hard bent to find anything you could categorize as new or innovative on the band’s debut album 36¢ (Team Love Records), that has an official release on May 6. Instead, what fills space on the new album are songs that seem to have ripped themselves from the fabric of a shared American consciousness—songs that seem as if they’ve been pulled out of the Earth ripe and intact like a Russet potato. The over-43 minutes of rambling, fingerpicked banjo breathe and stretch into a timeless expanse. Old-time vocal harmonies swell in and out of the songs like a ghostly mist sweeping across the grassy American plain.
Comfortable singing high melody as she is floating perfectly a third above or a fourth below her male counterpart, Kendl Winter has a distinct voice that is charming, inviting, and a bit haunting. It’s a voice that seems to have existed for centuries and will go on for centuries more. The little flip into falsetto–à la Iris Dement–that breaks through at the peak of nearly every one of her vocal phrases may be written off as gimmicky by some, but her heartfelt delivery and the words she sings–at times esoteric, at times as accessible to the masses as “The Good Book” itself–more than make up for that perhaps stylistic overindulgence.
Winter manages to sound like a ray of sunshine all throughout the album, despite the somber, pensive and even pining tunes she sings. At times you can actually hear a grin break on her tomboyish face, revealing the joy she experiences when playing, which she effortlessly conveys to the listener. Her voice as a songwriter particularly shines in track three “Living is Dying,” which simultaneously embodies the eternal lightness of youth and the dark bitterness of giving up the world as we know it to the great unknown that is death.
Not to be outdone, Palmer T Lee demonstrates he has every bit as much of a command over his instrument as Winter has. His alto-backing vocals like in the opening track, “Oh Susanna,” are a splash of rosewater sweetening the bitterness of those aching love songs. And when he plays the role of lead singer, he adds a quirkiness and a sense of irony that contrasts nicely with the sentimentality of Winter’s writing, like in “Pear Tree,” a song all about merging at the microbiological level with his one true love:
My love would still grow
As the worms turn me to soil
And there within the dirt my love would wait
To be pulled up by the roots
And be turned into a sweet fruit
Where I’d just hang around waiting to be ate
The pair enters a trance-like state in “Do You Leave the Light On,” where a repetitive, bluesy riff is like a mantra heard low under the meandering Robert Plant-esque, shamanic ecstasy of the vocals. It jars the listener into the present moment, calling for an analysis of life.
Another stunner is “Magpies at Sunset,” which gets its title from the opening line in the second verse. Incorporating imagery of, by now, an Americana cliché—the idea of going to the river to wash away your sins—the band actually reveals a sense of cynicism toward that concept, embodied in a lyric about black birds. “Grackles in the morning, Magpies at sunset, been up and down this country tryin’ to forget.” Problems follow you. From dusk to dawn, you’re damned the whole day through. And if the water is muddy, washing yourself in it don’t do much good.
In many of the live video recordings of the songs off 36¢, there’s obvious attention paid to setting the music within its rightful contex–that is cornfields, expanses of tall Indian Grass, shabby front porches, rusted pickup trucks in the background. Winter in the prerequisite cowboy boots and prairie style printed dresses, Lee in lumberjack plaid, beard and trucker hat. But you wouldn’t have to see them to get that picture; their songs inherently evoke that sort of imagery. The new album is like a veil that allows you to see the world only through the eyes of the exceptional artists that are The Lowest Pair.
When listening to the band’s music, you dare not drink your whiskey out of anything but a Ball Mason Jar or, better yet, straight out of the bottle itself.