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The Lowest PairThe Lowest Pair
Album: Uncertain As It Is Uneven/Fern Girl & Ice Man
Label: Team Love
Tracks: 11+11

Unless we're experiencing a specific promotional ploy to re-focus attention on an earlier product in the context of a new release, it's unusual to encounter an act releasing two separate albums simultaneously (as opposed to a deliberately marketed double-album). Here, the rationale is that they "could be viewed as two windows into the growing and changing world of The Lowest Pair". But this ain't the first time the duo (Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee) have used this gambit; only last year, they'd toured album number two (The Sacred Heart Sessions) in tandem with album number three (the rather clumsily titled I Reckon I'm Fixin' On Kickin' Round To Pick A Little). Before the tour, they'd been working with local Minnesota celebrities Dave Simonett and Erik Koskinen on some new recordings, but by the time they'd finished touring they found themselves with a whole new batch of songs ready to lay down, so the decision was taken to release both sets of recordings together this year.

Ostensibly, there might occasionally appear a difference between the two collections in that on Fern Girl & Ice Man there's a modicum of extra instrumentation like percussion on a small handful of tracks (notably Spring Cleaning and the wonderfully-titled When They Dance The Mountains Shake), but in the end it's not even a case of "spot the difference", since Erik plays bass and lap steel on both discs (and Barbara Jean Myers fiddle), and for the most part the duo's signature stripped-down basically-banjo-led-with-subtly-driven-guitar sound (the perfect foil for Kendl and Palmer's individual or harmonised vocals) still remains the major modus-operandi, which is no bad thing. A predilection for this method of delivery is probably determined to a large extent by the duo's musical background (Palmer a youthful veteran of the local string band circuit, whose songwriting has been found to dovetail beautifully with that of Kendl), but it also transpires that they're both inspired by writers such as Townes Van Zandt and John Hartford. Kendl's distinctive and highly accomplished banjo style is well in evidence on cuts like Waiting For The Taker, Mason's Trowel and the slightly weird Dreaming Of Babylon) and her poetic and playful way with words really charms the soul (in which regard it's a shame that the lyrics aren't provided for us to savour at leisure). And you can hear at once that both their voices were just born to sing bluegrass and old-time country, with the characteristic timbre of aching lonesomeness complementing their raw expressiveness.

The two albums are true companion pieces, a double treat for the existing fan and the fresh listener alike, and while they not quite meet the extravagant PR claim that they "mark the arrival of America's next great musical duo", there's a feast of very fine songwriting and playing on offer here. A healthy majority of the songs are Kendl's compositions, with a total of six by Palmer and two joint efforts, and there's a strong unity of both purpose and vision in the writing as well as in the vocal and instrumental empathy between the two protagonists in this glorious 22-song collection. In spite of the title of one of these albums, there's nothing remotely uncertain or uneven about Kendl and Palmer's output, and its musical character is warm rather than ice-cold; with a beauteous, if rather mournful, sense of melancholy that really haunts. Perhaps the best description, tho', is expansive, imaginative minimalist bluegrass that encompasses delicious flavourings of old-time and blues but possesses a special sensibility all its own.

David Kidman