If you’ve ever been to an In-n-Out Burger joint (Austin friends please substitute P. Terry’s, which I personally think is better, but that’s just me), you know that sometimes simple is better. Just look at the menu. Only, like, four choices! You’ve found yourself in line because you had a fire in your belly for a double double with fries, and you’re not reeeeeeeeaaaalllllllly going to consider anything else, are you? (You’re not.)
Other times you’re at Chili’s for reasons beyond your control, and you find yourself scanning the menu novel for a good ten minutes just to concede that you’re going to get the Monterey Chicken like you always do. If you’re wondering where I’m going with this, just hang tight. What I’m saying is that improvement on a formula doesn’t have to mean convoluted additions to that formula, and sometimes a stripped down return-to-basics focus yields amazing results. We like simple, people. We just don’t realize it.
The early 2010s are proving to be the golden age of irony and/or feigned emotionalism (read: Mumford & Derivatives, and/or Anne Hathaway on Sunday at the Golden Globes), and as a result, we seem to have lost this focus. Skeptical? Try explaining the word “hipster,” out loud, to yourself, without erupting into dry heaves and/or hysterical crying. So, what went wrong?
Just kidding, banjos aren’t the problem at all. Well… sometimes they are. They can be. If the banjo represents excess in folk revivalism, then maybe it is the problem. Why do you have your proverbial banjo? Is it just to have one? Is it because you’re already behind the curve if you don’t have one? Is it because the Avetts did it first? Are you just being ironic? Shame on you. You’re a monster.
Austin duo Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke don’t have banjos. Well, I don’t know, maybe they do. But their act under the better-known moniker of Penny and Sparrow doesn’t use ’em. In fact, they don’t use much at all. Just a guitar and their voices.
That’s right – just a single acoustic guitar and two beautiful voices frequently coinciding in perfect harmony. To borrow a phrase from LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, “Don’t do it that way. You’ll never make a dime.” But I’m being facetious, of course, because Penny and Sparrow is amazing. Tenboom is their debut full-length album, and it was funded on the strength of a Kickstarter project with 77 backers. So how does such a simple project work so well?
The answer is quite… well, simple, really. Because Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke are very very good. In the vein of coffee shop mainstays like Ryan Adams and Joe Pug, they understand that you don’t need gimmicks to make beautiful music that cuts you to the core. Baxter and Jahnke execute in spades in the voice department, and they write lyrics worth hearing. Still interested? Check out the title track from their Creature EP:
I don’t want to typecast Penny and Sparrow as the Anti-Mumford or anything like that. I’m just saying that I love how much mileage they’re able to get out of so much simplicity. To be entirely fair, most of Tenboom‘s cuts work with some sort of string section as well, and there’s the occasional bonk of a kick drum or plunk of a piano key; it’s beautiful, but these songs would be just as good without.
“Valjean” is a perfectly timed song about Hugh Jackman, but “Heroes and Monsters” is the best track on Tenboom. H&M succeeds on not just the strength of its entrancing melody, but also the perfect acuity that its lyrics possess: “The moon’s gonna rise no matter what; and I’m a hero and a monster, so tie me to the chair.” Tracks “Duet” and “A Woman Caught” reach deep and succeed on all fronts, and the way the strings dance in the latter is delightful.
The rest of Tenboom is unanimously remarkable. It’s just beautiful music. Its themes are intimate and relational but my favorite thing about all of it is that it doesn’t try too hard. Look, these guys are amazing; they know it, and they know that there’s no point in sugarcoating a dish that doesn’t need to be sugarcoated. Like a good cheeseburger. Mmmmm.
(4) Duet (feat. Stephanie Briggs)
(5) Heroes and Monsters
(7) A Woman Caught