The Penningtones – Circle of Fifths

The Penningtones
Circle of Fifths

Seattle’s own, The Penningtones is a band that is not trying to impress. From the three simple photographs that adorn the packaging of their CD, Circle of Fifths, I got the impression that this group of musicians could care less about any sort of pretension. One of the photos, a black and white cover shot, looks down on a second-hand wooden table that’s been left outside. On the table, arranged in a circle, seven bottles of spirits (of varying stages of emptiness) cast long shadows in a late afternoon sun. The remaining two photographs depict the band, a group of middle-aged guys and one woman. The first, an old-timey band photograph, catches the group posing and brandishing their instruments. The second is a snapshot of the band immediately before or after a liquored toast, all mugging good-natured smiles, sitting around the fifth-littered table (presumably, the same one shown on the cover). No kids in the picture, but I bet they’re somewhere around … maybe at practice or with friends. The music doesn’t match the lives of the people in the photograph. It’s too late for them to go for broke with this. Playing music with friends is just an activity of theirs to bond and to make life a little more fun. It can’t be known what type of music the band plays from the pictures, but it can be inferred that the music reflects the simple, homespun feeling the table, the bottles and the faces of the maturing band combine to create. And so it is. The songs in Circle of Fifths is country-tinged roots-rock sung and played with all the experience of older musicians taking a little time off from their other lives.

True to the pictures, The Penningtones, named for founding band members Brent and Rick Pennington, originated from “informal living room jam sessions” the brothers had with some friends. Even now that they’re a recording band, they haven’t tried to go beyond the casual, loose playing styles and song structures they must have worked out in their living room. And that feeling of friendship and home drenches the music on the CD. The songs and the playing are straightforward and warm. No fancy showboating. No abstract lyrics. Even though I don’t like the term they use for their music, “power folk,” it does describe the style in the fewest possible words. Their brand of music is rooted in American traditional folk, and it also draws from country, rock, rockabilly, and blues (hence, the “power” part). All these distinctly American styles are thrown into this CD like a savory, messy, greasy potluck meal that washes down with a few gallons of domestic brew.

The disc begins with the intensely likeable “So Damn Wrong,” a slightly inebriated “heartbreak” southern folk/rock song, driven by several acoustic guitars and a sputtering harmonica. Lead vocalist Brent Pennington delivers his words in a scratchy growl that reminds me of J. Mascis of Dinosaur, Jr. His voice isn’t pretty, but it’s one that you find yourself rooting for and cheering when it hits those higher notes. Stefanie Hodovance assumes lead vocals on the next track, “Broken Man,” a blues/folk ballad for the dumped. Her beautifully deep and soulful voice wears its broken heart on its sleeve. She is, without question, the best new singer in any genre of music – both indie and major label – that I’ve heard this year. I wish she had more songs on the disc, but she only sings lead vocal on one more song, the melancholy, slow blues of “Words.”

On “Baby Likes to Mess Around,” Brent Pennington leads the band swiftly through an acoustic-driven rockabilly “cheatin” song. Featured is a fun but brief interplay between acoustic and electric guitars. Of the other songs, only “Wildcat” left me wanting. The folk rock music sounds good, and the song has definite potential. What doesn’t work for me, however, is that the lead vocals are performed by the song’s writer, Hugh Jones. Not that he has a bad voice, but I just don’t think it’s ready for “Prime Time.”

So there they are, on the picture and in the music on the disc. Just making music for the fun of it, and that genuineness manifests itself throughout the CD. It’s good-natured, drunken folk and country rock written and performed by just a bunch of regular “joes” burning off steam from the workweek. Circle of Fifths is a fun-loving CD filled with the standard clichés of “break-ups,” “cheatin’,” “aggravated murder,” and “drinkin’.” There’s no cover, but management would kindly appreciate a two-drink minimum. Even though they play for fun, a little pocket change never did anyone any harm.