ALBUM: Ten Boom
ARTIST: Penny and Sparrow
Album release date: February 26, 2013
You duped me, Texas, and I let myself be duped…
Texans always seem to have alot to boast about: and seldom do you find one who isn’t enthused to let you know that your life sucks if you’re not from there. Plains, mountains, Chuck Norris, Bluebell icecream, Mexican border towns, Dublin Dr. Pepper and Dallas freeways all find a home in the Lone Star State and in the hearts of its citizens.
Frankly, I never believed much in Texas, even after visiting it. I only got as far as the Woodlands, and that place is as ostentatious as it is bereft of culture – unless you count Lexus as a culture (“Where are the poor?” I asked my friend as we drove past mansion after mansion. “How do these people stay in touch with reality?”) My upbringing in New York had me muttering things out of the East-coast corner of my mouth, even as I knew I hadn’t gotten the full picture of the state. Needless to say, it was a bad first impression, and from then on I listened with an even wearier ear to those who sang Texas’ praises.
But that changed when I discovered the true gem of Texas. My eyes were opened, my ears were unsealed, and my heart was unfettered from the shackles of prejudice upon this serendipitous epiphany (I’m not kidding). I found Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke, members of the duo Penny & Sparrow; and thanks to the hearts of these two men who hail from the heart of Texas, my own soul has writhed and resisted and found healing beneath the broad sculptor hands that hold us in existence; and now I thank God for that preposterously huge hunk of land down there.
I Was Thirsty, and You Gave Me Something to Drink
I first heard them after opening a strangely enticing, mildly menacing box in a corner one day, unable to control the postlapsarian impulse. The song that came on was Brothers. For a couple of years after, I’d stop whatever I was doing when the song would come on and listen attentively: I loved it, and was moved by it in an unusually deep place; but for some reason I never sought them out further. It wasn’t until last Fall when my boyfriend sat me down to watch a handful of their live videos with him that I realized how thirsty my soul was for the water they offer. I will never be able to convey in words just how consoling their artistry was to me, and still is; consoling in a manner that goes far beyond simple sonic satisfaction.
I don’t know much about either of them, other than that they met in a huge bohemian house full of guys in Austin who all shared a proclivity for art and its myriad manifestations. I also know that Andy is a fan of Steinbeck, and that Kyle is not quite up to snuff on Star Wars trivia (I sound like a creep). They love their wives, don’t take themselves too seriously, and have a vision of reality that looks beyond skin and bone without condemning it. Their first EP, Creature, was released in 2011, followed by their first full length album Ten Boom in 2013. One year later, Struggle Pretty was released; and a new album is on the way. While I plan to review their latest in the near future (after listening to it 20-30 times while swinging in a ceiling-hammock in my designated hammock room and allowing myself to be more perfectly perforated by their sapience), for now I’m going to focus on Ten Boom.
Let All Gnostics be Anathema
10 sparsely adorned tracks are situated thematically so as to arch and fall according to their subject matter and the overall telos of the project. Sufjan Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel, and Mumford and Sons – at their most acoustic – offer some basis from which to draw musical similarities, though Baxter and Jahnke do defy categorization in that their sound has a color and texture of its own: what they have is neither trite nor borrowed. Baxter’s voice is clear as a bell, yet simultaneously red-blooded and full: it coalesces astonishingly well with Jahnke’s harmonies and guitar-work, which are tasteful and golden-toned. Some strings, organ-like swelling, and the occasional ambient vibe appear now and then throughout the album to cultivate the restrained and tender mise en scene.
The lyrics echo this austere approach. They are clear-headed, visceral, pleading, and rich with unassuming allegory. The aforementioned song Brothers offers one of the clearest depictions of philia I’ve come across since reading Samuel, in which David cries in anguish over the death of his beloved friend Jonathan, for whom he had great brotherly love and concern. Valjean hit me in a particularly tender place, as I’ve been reading Les Mis lately and have been struck continuously by the familiarity of grace and redemption, even as it unfolds in specific, far-away plots and lives that would otherwise be obscured by time and custom. Duet is a beautiful tribute to nuptial love, and expresses a healthy understanding and gratitude for erotic love, as well as a grasp of its purpose to act as the vestibule of deeper self-gift: Baxter sings for his wife knowing that the true ecstasy comes only after purification through tribulations, perseverance through mediocrities, and uninterrupted efforts at self-renunciation for the sake of the beloved. This intimate, naked approach weaves its way through the entire set of songs: Penny and Sparrow realize that the point where the Divine encounters our humanity is a physical one, and they do not shy away from matter.
Every Truth is a Meeting Point
But the thing that sets the music of Penny and Sparrow apart is an undeniable excellence of heart, a synthesis of truth and reality, an honesty of thought and action – as conveyed through the bodies and minds of two individual men who have responded to a creative commission. In a time when sarcasm, innuendo, and satire (not to mention, robots) are becoming increasingly frequent stand-ins for a true command of language and a genuine philosophy of life, Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke represent a narrative of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen: a narrative that epitomizes the symphonic nature of truth, which, though unchanging, is as multifaceted and complex as the many cuts of a single diamond, sending off countless threads of light in every direction and bouncing indiscriminately against, through, beneath, and around whatever it comes in contact with.
And so I raise my glass to Texas, grumbling the one thing that comes to mind as I ponder these two fellows: