Penny and Sparrow’s ten boom is an exceptional album that evokes deep emotion. It is a delight at times; it is difficult at times; but it provokes throughout. It is the kind of album that will have you singing along while also asking yourself hard questions. The music is a little bit Indie folk, a little pop, and chalk full of gorgeous harmonies.
From the opening acoustic strum of “Just and Just Us” it’s evident that there’s an intentional sonic environment being created on the album. It feels like walking into a sanctuary. It’s that moment where you feel like you should dust off your feet and think deeply before strolling in. The voices blend together with a high male lead and an even higher male tenor harmony. The lyric “so we labor” has a worshipful crispness to it as well. The song invokes a serious and simultaneously inspiring feeling.
“Brothers” has an ethereal awesome component to it as well. It feels kind and close and intimate, yet has a certain magisterial vastness to it. There’s something on the resonance the producers put on the guitar that makes it feel like you’re almost flying in one section. Simultaneously the song remains, perhaps purposefully, “ground” with a methodical kick drum. “Don’t give up… don’t you quit on me.” It’s a story of connection and brotherly love. Beautiful.
When I read the title “Valjean” I, like many others undoubtedly, thought of Jean Valjean of the famous Les Miserables. The song has an unceremonious and subtle beginning that grows into a spectacular song. While it doesn’t crescendo to balladeering heights, it nevertheless creates a full feeling in the listeners core. Some of the harmonies in this song just seem to slip into place. The refrain’s “I have to let you go” works wonders for a theatrical soundscape. The strings… oh the strings… really drive it home. Honestly, this song begs of a music video… or just a short story written to it.
This is an album that has me saying after nearly every track “oh, THIS is the best one on the album.” It reminds me, in some ways, of last year’s In the Deep Dark Valley by the Oh Hellos. “Duet,” a song which features Stephanie Briggs, does an amazing job of… well, duet harmony. The infusion of the female rather than male vocal harmony offers a nice change at the mid point of the album. Besides that, these two voices are amazing together. When Briggs takes lead (the second verse), there’s this wellspring of life that seems to pour through the headphones. Her vocal is so superbly highlighted by the rest of the song. It’s a phenomenal piece of music.
The absolute class of the album, though, is the track “Bones.” From the first chord this is an immaculate song. Seriously it’s an immediate contender for song of the year. I even hesitate to call it a “song.” It is, instead, more of an orchestral love ballad. Seriously I had no idea I could find something like this on an album released on bandcamp. I didn’t necessarily expect some type of lo-fi garageband sound, but I certainly didn’t expect a love ballad of radio quality. And that’s what this is. If you’re wondering what it is that makes it so spectacular… well… it’s the harmonies, the balance, and the amazing vocals.
“A Woman Caught” is an interesting song because it has a captivating lyrical premise. “Hallelujahs are all around, but the roof’s caving in.” It seems to have to do with an unfaithful significant other. “Girl I know where you been.” It doesn’t sound like this was born out of the same love of the aforementioned “Bones.” The strings and vocals are still good. They have a sort of subtle pop crispness to them. The dissonance between the sweet music and the harsh lyrics bring together an overall satisfying if reflective song. The sacral “Hallelujahs” at the end are icing on the proverbial cake.
For some reason I think “La Reyna” was written for a woman. I know that’s impossible for me to judge without asking the artists (maybe I’ll get that chance!), but it’s written with love chords and has a beautiful romantic vibe. “I don’t really care. Doesn’t matter to me. Because I know that I’ll be with you. I know that I’ll be with you.” See what I mean? Awwww. Seriously if you’re from a company that puts songs in romantic comedies or just romantic romances, you should put this song in your movie. Or Grey’s Anatomy. They seem to like this kind of acoustic love music too.
The last two songs are actually one song split. One is called “Patience, First” and the album ends with “Patience, Please.” “Both” songs are good, even though they are really one. Now a skeptic would say they are two songs just to make an even ten, but I put my spidey senses on and have come to the conclusion that they are split for an ideological reason; the first focuses on the intensity of the early part of a relationship, “when your lips first touched mine…” and the second has an acoustic strum beginning that leads to the eerie refrain “please come home.” This is pure speculation, but it seems like it could be somewhat related to the juxtaposed mixture of love songs with the highly-charged “A Woman Caught.” By the way the lead vocal on this sounds like it could be sung at a wedding… by Andrea Bocelli… if he still does weddings (which I doubt). Maybe Josh Groban?
So the takeaway on this album is that it’s fantastic. It’s on my short list for albums to keep for the end of the year list. That said, what makes it so good doesn’t sound “on paper” like it’s all that great. Good harmonies, sweet writing, and an overall balanced production seems to be par for the course on a lot of music. But in reality that’s not true at all. We hear a lot of people TRYING to do this, but not doing it well. Penny and Sparrow are one of the most amazing emerging duets we’ve heard in a long time. And the thing is, their stripped down (i.e. no strings [ha, get it?]) sound is just as good as the full production. Put in other terms, you really need to give this a listen. It’s streaming free on bandcamp, but you could be “more awesome” and buy it from them on that very same bandcamp page.