With so many duos still adhering to the muddied-guitar-and-drums style years after the White Stripes broke, it's refreshing to see local twosome the Finches reaching back to an earlier, folksier model wherein melody and songwriting win out over bombast and swagger.
"We actually tried to have our friend Justin play drums at the practice space with us once, and none of us really knew what we wanted at that point," guitarist-vocalist Aaron Morgan muses over tea at a noisy café a few blocks west of the UC Berkeley campus. "And it was Justin himself who told us, 'You know, you guys don't really need a drummer.' "
When the boy-girl duo of Morgan and vocalist-guitarist Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs perform, their plain-harmony vocals and soft-spoken stage patter make it a little difficult not to think of A Mighty Wind, but the earnestness is clearly paying off. I've seen the group play several times over the last year, and it's hard to miss all the kids drifting by the merch table to pick up the group's self-released EP, Six Songs, an endearing batch of tunes topped with a tender Pennypacker Riggs print showing a girl with a finch, riding off into a dreamscape of mountains and night.
That merch table will be a little busier soon with the release of the Finches' debut, Human Like a House. The full-length feels very much like a natural growth from Six Songs, and while fans will certainly be pleased to hear more of a good thing, there are subtle surprises here too. For starters, the Pennypacker Riggs album art that so catches the eye has expanded to an accompanying book, How I Was Carried Away.
"I like to conflate the visual and the aural," she explains. "They're kind of the same stories."
For now the duo seem grateful for the support they've received on their own merits and are thrilled that they've been added to the Revolver Distribution and the Dulc-I-Tone label rosters. "I think the word will spread about them to people who really get it," Matt Lammikins at Revolver says, "and that's how they have gotten a weird following all over the country [the world, really] that has no rhyme or reason, and my friends still don't know who they are.... It's just good honest songwriting." The confidence all this has inspired shows on Human Like a House, especially in Pennypacker Riggs's increasingly varied singing range. There are several songs here "Last Favor" and the title track that elaborate on the Six Songs formula: song-pirouettes in which melodies circle one another, matching up with Pennypacker Riggs's forlorn lyrics. This balancing tends to work best when the tunes are kept short. In "June Carter Cash," for example, we get a clear-eyed snapshot of love and loss in a few rounds of the stately chord progression. The song is about the way we express our own feelings and experiences in other people's voices and music. Hence the heartbreaking lyric "June Carter and John have flown / Now I'm ready to let you let me go."
"My favorite songs were the last we wrote," Pennypacker Riggs confesses. It shows: "Step Outside" is ebullient, the sound of the Finches falling in love, singing, "When we stop / It feels as though / We're rolling backwards" over descending chords. Elsewhere the band leavens its duets with drums, pedal steel, and cello. The last is provided by Vetiver's Alissa Anderson on the shimmering "Two Ghosts," a song in which Anderson's drones seem to reel in Pennypacker Riggs's and Morgan's conversing guitar lines like something caught at sea.
Guest shots aside, Human Like a House is a homespun affair. The pedal steel is provided by Morgan's father, David, who also engineered much of the recording in the family's San Diego garage. "My dad's just beginning to learn how to engineer recordings," Morgan explains. "This was his learning experience, which, I have to say, I think he did a nice job on." Indeed, the guitars sound a little brighter than on Six Songs, the harmonies delivered with a newfound warmth and clarity. Finishing touches were added in Pennypacker Riggs's family garage in El Cerrito, with the vocalist's mother contributing a recorder overdub before the duo closed the book on Human Like a House.
These production choices seem appropriate given the ground the duo treads on this album. "Owning a home [in the Bay Area] is pretty much a fantasy, a domestic fantasy," Pennypacker Riggs says when I ask her about recurrent images of homemaking. "I love this area, but I won't be able to afford to stay here forever, which bums me out."
It's a rootlessness all too familiar to many of us and one that Pennypacker Riggs rubs up against on Human Like a House. The album's centerpiece, "The House under the Hill," crescendos with a chorus fleshed out with vocals by Morgan's parents in a swelling show of support. But then, moments later, it's just the guitars and Pennypacker Riggs's voice again: "Alone I am nameless / And fearless and faceless." Bob Dylan might ask her, "How does it feel?" but by the end of Human Like a House, we have a pretty good idea. *
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