The first of two new albums from the famed bluegrass duo The Lowest Pair, Fern Girl and Ice Man is an eleven song showcase of Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee’s eye-popping command of traditional Americana musical lexicon, their sharply attuned sense of song construction, and their willingness to extend traditional forms in creative ways. Fern Girl and Ice Man include the duo’s first tentative moves closer to a full band format, but the duo are obviously and quite rightly careful to not allow additional instrumentation to overwhelm or obscure their faithful invocation of bluegrass, folk, blues, and country music influences.
One of the album’s best songs is the first one. Lee sings much of “The River Will” and delivers an emotive, well-phrased performance bringing the duo’s storytelling skills into sharp relief. The song embraces the same spartan sound typifying the duo’s recorded work without ever sounding too imitative of older artists. The popular knock on Americana music is that they are relatively limited forms. Such knocks miss the point entirely. The Lowest Pair profoundly understand that the quality calling to people from material like this isn’t an expansive musical vocabulary or experimentation for its own sake. Instead, it’s stories; it’s the resonance with the poetic spirit lighting up the songwriting and the deeply felt vocals that deliver these songs as if their lives depended on it. “Stranger” is one of the album’s darker songs and the somber mood is well reflected in the pacing and stark beauty of the arrangement. The Lowest Pair experiments a little on “When They Dance the Mountains Shake” by incorporating strong drumming that helps embody the song’s title. It has a steadily mounting rise uncommon on most of their songs and much more common to mainstream musical dynamics. The duo proves themselves to be quick studies at expanding their sound and this stands out as one of the album’s finest songs.
“Totes” is the album’s shortest song, but don’t allow its length to mislead you into thinking that this is a throwaway number. Lee handles the lead vocals on this and Winter’s vocal accompaniment comes in at perfect points. More of the duo’s lyrical eloquence comes out here and the song speaks volumes despite its duration. Winter takes the lead on the following song, “Trick Candlelight”, and the title serves notice that this is likely one of the album’s cleverest songs. It lives up to its considerable promise thanks to Winter’s exquisitely delineated vocal that captures the heart of its depicted experience. Rustic qualities dominate “Shuck It” and the instrumentation is, once again, laid bare with just Winter’s vocal and Lee’s meditative banjo lines. The album’s longest song, “Waiting for the Taker”, shows the duo using dynamics again with the tempo change in the song’s second half. They bring additional instruments into the mix for increased atmosphere, but it never comes off as arbitrary or affected.
These are two of the album’s hallmark qualities – it has a wonderfully organic quality and never slips into pretension. This isn’t an easy tightrope for Americana themed acts to walk. They work in a tradition dating back more than a century and, as a result, it’s all too easy to rely on familiar tropes devoid of originality or inspiration. The Lowest Pair have a resounding success with this album.