Review: The Lowest Pair – Fern Girl and Ice Man

I stray outside the realm of metal pretty often, but relative to the big picture, it’s a small fraction. Still, I greatly enjoy discovering non-metal bands that amaze and delight, and in 2016 my greatest such discovery was without a doubt The Lowest Pair. I caught this folk/bluegrass duo live in the Fall, and after their superb set I was hooked.

The Lowest Pair is comprised of Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee. Both have made the rounds on the folk circuit and Winter is active in her solo work, but together they are a remarkable force. Both play the banjo, both play the guitar, and both play them damned well. I’m a sucker for banjo and there’s enough killer pickin’ on display here to woo me all on its own, yet the main chemistry exists in the vocals. Winter has a high, girlish, country twang and while Palmer’s Minnesota roots don’t give him any Southern flavor, his voice is soulful and earnest. Combined, their harmony is a charming, irresistible phenomenon.

Indeed, the very first seconds of the album are graced by that bewitching harmony in “The River Will,” as their voices burst forth a cappella. Musically, though, this opener is also a rager, with dual banjo and lots of delicious minor chords, presenting an overall air akin to 16 Horsepower. For “Tagged Ear,” things turn beautifully melancholy, the delicately plucked notes floating from the banjo and merging with solid and excellently played strums of guitar. Winter and Lee sound so natural together; you can tell they feed off one another, and the musical interplay feels effortless.

“Stranger” is one of my absolute favorites, a clever and witty song that is also simultaneously endearing and heartfelt. And oh that vocal harmony — here it is just achingly perfect, mesmerizing and exquisite. The same could be said of the brilliant “Totes,” a song that packs a ton of emotion and sincerity into just over two minutes. The Lowest Pair truly has a gift not just for music but for lyrics, and both these songs are splendid in that respect. They conjure sadness and longing and hope, and somehow you can always just imagine smirks at the corners of their creators’ mouths.

And then there are the dark bluegrass powerhouses “Sweet Breath” and “Waiting for the Taker.” “Sweet Breath” is a total inferno, featuring fingers flying across banjo and guitar strings, the tempo gasping, urgent, and furious. As much as I love the ballads, this ripper is in the style that made me fall in love with bluegrass in the first place. Just utterly fantastic. “Waiting…” takes the slower, moodier path, but it presses on the listener almost as strongly with a sort of brooding menace. Again 16 Horsepower comes to mind, which is high praise in my book. It’s slower, that is, until the end, when it ramps up and once again shows formidable picking skills.

Crazily enough, “Fern Girl and Ice Man” was but one of two albums The Lowest Pair released in 2016. After touring in 2015, they had written enough material so they boldly decided on two simultaneous releases. The other, “Uncertain as It Is Uneven,” is excellent as well, but it doesn’t have the same cohesive and transformative power. Even in the moments that lean in a less-preferable country direction, I still find joy and respect the immense songwriting talent at hand. In fact, after what feels like hundreds of listens, I feel like I’m continuing to peel back the layers of this record and find new things to love. The Lowest Pair offers a respite for this old metalhead for which he never asked, but when music is this good, genres are rendered meaningless anyway.

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