The duo of Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee, collectively known as The Lowest Pair, has followed an idiosyncratic path since their 2013 formation. Few performing and songwriting units embody the idea of “following the songs wherever and whenever they come” as completely. Like any professional musical act, The Lowest Pair understand the value of career planning, but no one can ever claim that scheduling trumps their creativity. The duo originally planned on releasing a new album in the spring of 2016, but they soon found themselves with such a wealth of material to draw from that they made the unusual decision to record two entirely distinct albums. Not a double album, but two totally unique packages with their own artistic thrust. The first album, Fern Girl and Ice Man, is an eleven song effort that represents a departure for the duo. Rather than feeling content with another lo-fi, bare bones outing propelled by acoustic instruments, The Lowest Pair explore a variety of sounds over the eleven songs without ever sacrificing anything from their core sound. The production brings everything to vivid, almost Technicolor life and has an appealing “live” sound.
The album’s opener, “The River Will”, begins the work with a sparse sound that seemingly intends to establish the duo’s core strengths before experimenting. Winter and Lee juxtapose their voices against each other in imaginative ways while still meshing together seamlessly at frequent points. The lyrics have a strong narrative slant and a compelling blend of the specific and general. “Tagged Ear” abandons the bluegrass in the opener in favor of a dreamy folk texture. It’s a testament to their songwriting and performing skills that The Lowest Pair can produce such stylized songs without them ever sounding facile. “Stranger” slows the tempo a little more and plays well as an outstanding bluegrass/acoustic blues hybrid. If the “high lonesome sound” is something these two talented musicians and songwriters seek to capture, they do so rather effortlessly and free from any pretension.
“When They Dance the Mountains Shake” opens in a beautifully off-the-cuff fashion and quickly evolves into the duo’s clearest excursion yet into playing with a full band. The percussion is creative and assertive without ever wielding too heavy a hand over what is, essentially, fragile and intimate music. Winter moves to the fore on “Trick Candlelight” for a gorgeously wrought, nearly crystalline, track aching with immense sensitivity. The song is another occasion for listeners to reflect on the duo’s superb songwriting instincts – there simply isn’t a musical or lyrical note out of place here and it doesn’t play a second longer than it needs to run. “Waiting for the Taker” is one the gems late on the album and it’s a little longer than most of the tracks on Fern Girl and Ice Man. The extended arrangement creates space for The Lowest Pair to further open up their playing and the accompanying musicians, particularly on bass, make understated but crucial contributions to the song. The album’s finale, “How Can I Roll”, brings Fern Girl and Ice Man full circle. It’s the last intimate exchange between Winter and Lee with the former leading the way vocally.
This release will receive ample praise from every quarter and it’s completely warranted. Fern Girl and Ice Man is an impressive, well-rounded album with substantive songwriting and lights out musicianship. The Lowest Pair are writing and recording work that doesn’t speak just to the here and now, but takes aim for posterity.
9 out of 10 stars.