Penny & Sparrow showcase a new direction at an Orange Peel show

CALL IT WHAT YOU WILL: Penny & Sparrow were pigeonholed early as an indie-folk act. But as the duo's new album, 'Finch,' vividly demonstrates, there's a great deal more to Kyle Jahnke, left, Andy Baxter and the music they make. Photo courtesy of the artists

The crystalline instrumentation and emotionally resonant vocal harmonies of Penny & Sparrow have earned the Austin, Texas, folk duo both critical plaudits and a dedicated following. But Penny & Sparrow — Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke — are about much more than indie-folk: Their latest album, Finch, draws from a wide (and perhaps unexpected) array of styles, most notably rhythm and blues. The duo plays The Orange Peel on Saturday, Sept. 7.

Penny & Sparrow have given Frank Ocean’s Blond CD countless spins since its release. That might surprise some of Baxter’s and Jahnke’s longtime fans; Penny & Sparrow’s signature sound lies closer to Fleet Foxes than to Ocean’s brand of radio-ready R&B.

Jahnke knows what he finds special in Ocean’s music. “What drew me continually back to it was that, no matter how many times I listened, I could always find some new layer, something else worth listening to,” he says. “They’re fun songs, and at the same time they’re really thoughtful.”

And on that level, there’s a clear connection between songs such as Blond‘s sultry “Nights” and Finch tracks such as “Long Gone.” Jahnke says that when he and Baxter started writing songs for their new record, “We were ingesting R&B. And a lot of the melodies that we were writing were coming out that direction; that started changing everything with our sound.”

Early Penny & Sparrow releases, such as the group’s 2013 debut, Tenboom, rely almost solely on acoustic guitars and vocals. In many ways, songs such as that record’s “Just and Just As” are a long way from the duo’s current approach. So it’s fair to wonder if the two still think of themselves as folk musicians. “That’s a tough one,” says Baxter with a hearty laugh. Calling folk a “junk-drawer genre,” he makes the point that the genre label has been used to describe everyone from Bob Dylan to Glen Hansard (The Swell Season) to John Paul White (The Civil Wars).

“I don’t much care what it gets boiled down to, as long as people dig it,” Baxter says. “We’ve got on Rolling Stone‘s country playlists, alt-country and Americana playlists. Call it what you will; we’re going to keep trying to change and experiment with different stuff.”

Jahnke agrees. “We’ve had an elbow-to-the-ribs, eye-roll moment of saying, ‘I guess that’s what we are, for lack of a better phrase,’” he says with a knowing chuckle. “We’ve had at least a dozen conversations — late at night while drinking — when we’ve tried to rename our genre: ‘rosé rock,’ emo country.’ … We’ve had a lot of attempts.”

Even with the R&B-flavored textures on Finch, there are unifying characteristics that extend across Penny & Sparrow’s six albums; foremost among those is emotional honesty. Baxter says that each recording is “another chapter in the ongoing autobiography. Every album is indicative of who we were at the time of writing it: what we thought, what we believed, how we loved.”

He emphasizes that those projects don’t — and cannot — give the full picture. “Even if you did fully understand [any given] record, it wouldn’t be all-encompassing to the full human beings that we are,” he says. “But it feels nice to go back and listen to previous records because that’s how they were built: as an overview of the type of men that we were at that time.”

It was a relatively straightforward endeavor to deliver early Penny & Sparrow songs live onstage. The spare yet careful arrangements center on just a few elements. The layered sound of Finch looks to be more of a challenge to reproduce in concert — maybe Jahnke and Baxter won’t even try. “We’ll let you know in about a month!” Baxter says with a laugh.

“Since Andy and I perform as a duo, every single song is going to change a little bit,” Jahnke says. “And I think that makes it interesting. Instead of just hearing a copy of the recording, if you come to a live show, you’re hearing a variation on every song. We’re trying to give [each] song as good of a service as possible, in a live way, without having to add too many other ingredients.”

WHO: Penny & Sparrow
WHERE: The Orange Peel, 101 Biltmore Ave., theorangepeel.net
WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 7, p.m. $20 advance

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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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