The Lowest Pair is Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee, two banjo players with a singular and growing vision. Winter moved from Arkansas to Olympia, Washington, after high school and released three solo records on K Records before forming the Lowest Pair in 2013 with Lee, a native of Minneapolis who had honed his chops fronting touring the midwest festival circuit with his band Boys ‘n the Barrels. The pair have released two previous records, 36c, which was produced by Dave Simonett of Trampled by Turtles, and the acclaimed Sacred Heart Sessions, whose recording over two days in an old cathedral in Duluth, Minnesota, added a haunting resonance to the sound.
Fern Girl and Ice Man finds the duo expanding into a band setting. The added musicians fill the space without changing the sparse, haunting quality that defines the Lowest Pair’s core sound. Fans of instrumental flash and flourish may wish to go elsewhere in search of their fix, but they’ll be missing some fine songwriting and spare, haunting playing. The performers’ instrumental breaks here serve to intensify mood, not call attention to individual prowess. It is all in the service of the song with this group. The added guitar and tambourine of album opener “The River Will”, ironically, take the song deeper into the hills, its instrumental jam adding depth as opposed to volume. Similarly, the instrumentation of “When They Dance the Mountains Shake” is full but light as a fleet foot. Only “Spring Cleaning” ups the instrumental volume dramatically when Winter and Lee sing the question “Who am I gonna run to tonight?” If there’s a defining characteristic to the Lowest Pair’s growth on this album it is less the expanded instrumentation they welcome on these songs than their growing confidence as singers. Both “Tagged Ear” and “Stranger” find them merging and twining their voices in new and unexpected ways. Already expert in weaving the sounds of their banjos together, on this album, they take great strides in doing the same with their voices.