PENELOPE ISLES, the gorgeous Brighton combo led by brother and sister Jack and Lily Wolter, are releasing their second album this week – that’s cause for joy as winter looms. surely.
Until The Tide Comes In, their album from 2019 and first for Simon Raymonde’s excellent Bella Union imprint, was a slice of shoegazey guitar pop genius, as evidenced by the crowning genius of “Gnarbone”, many minutes of guitar heaven you could shake a tail feather to with aplomb and completely lose your head inside, such is the post-Guthrie and -Halstead genius of Jack’s guitar odyssey therein.
I saw them at a hastily arranged gig in a West Cornwall art space when Boardmasters was cancelled that year, with about maybe 70 in attendance, and whoah, “Gnarbone” live… Really something else.
The hovering carrion birds of the music world may sigh and proclaim at this juncture: difficult second album, you wait, and retire to their dusty old Melody Maker collections.
Pleased to report: not a bit of it. Across a total of 11 tracks, Which Way To Happy fair soars, full of colour, and big, bold, expansive colour at that.
There’s been a trio of advance singles from the summer on, ranging from the lush, big-optics balladry of “Sailing Still”, Lily all wrapped in reverb and regret; the halcyon electro of “Iced Gems”; “Sudoku”, just in September gone there. We’ve included two of the videos herein; it’d be rude not to. All three boded well and beckoned us into a bright Penelope Isles future.
So how did they navigate the gnarly tides of life since that last record? I mean, virus blah, band absolutely crocked in any kind of live sense, to a greater extent the recording sphere, too; just spice that grim cauldron with membership changes in the band and personal upheaval – it’s enough to do any good band down, really.
But what they’ve come forward with is an album which does have some bruising, a few tender spots on display, but is also replete with lots, lots of splendid and very glittery guitar pop which fair dazzles and induces grins and generally leads you to look for the sunshine.
You can lay a lot of credit at Jack’s door, as not only did he share the singin’ and-a songwritin’ with Lily, as par for the course, but he was also at the faders; and a little extra pixie dust came from none other than Dave Fridmann, producer of no lesser classics than Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs, Mogwai’s Come On Die Young, The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, among others. And I think once you know, you can really tell his hand; everything is so deliciously loud and glittery and candystore-rainbow, as Lily confirms: “He made everything so colourful. It’s an intense-sounding record – a hot record. It was so refreshing to have that blast of energy from Dave – it’s like he framed our pictures.”
Actually, those circling cynics might have seen their cynicism confirmed. The twin blasts of the rona and lockdown hit with album sessions tentatively underway at a cottage in Cornwall – you can hear captured environment recordings as a layer here and there throughout the record; we’re told romantic heartache was already mashing brains, and lockdown led to further challenges.
Jack says: “We were there for about two or three months. It was a tiny cottage with four of us in and we all went a bit bonkers, and we drank far too much, and it spiralled a bit out of control. There were a lot of emotional evenings and realisations, which I think reflects in the songs.”
One final collaborative hat must be tipped to composer Fiona Brice, who was enlisted for strings ‘n’ things and adds a lovely lushness. She’s worked with everyone from Placebo to Roy Harper to Vashti Bunyan. I mean, and Dave Fridmann; this is big league stuff.
A perturbing title it may be, but you know you’re completely in safe hands as soon as Jack’s guitar chimes in with the opening bars of the first track, “Terrified”; a song musically, I think, full of Cornish sun; it’s got easy sweetness like a Sarah Records rarity or Alvvays, uncomplicated guitar pop to swoon for. And is that a little bit of Dave Fridmann caught in the studio, at the end there? It’s during the breakdown, which really is quite The Soft Bulletin technicolour, loads of ASMR glimmer and random background chatter to hook you deeper, that Jack reveals a cloudier strand; drops the F bomb, reveals he’s in trouble all the time. Oh … .
Lily steps up to guide the vocal on the following “Rocking At The Bottom”, and in these two songs we have a pattern; darker verbal and lyrical conceits framed in proper, glittering, indie guitar beauty. At the bottom looking up, Lily coos with that honeyed breathiness that both the Wolters are soo adept at, vocally so pure. The bass is krautrock-clicky, there’s wooshes and washes and it’s a track that gleams, a full-on sonic bath bomb. Yum. “Play It Cool” has an easy strut and you could easily imagine it being on Parallel Lines in another life.
“Iced Gems” is a synthier thing, clattery with lofi drums, absolutely delightful and breathy and replete with diving swallows of electronica sugar. It’s all light as a feather, with little glimpses here and there into the lamenting nature of Lily’s lyric; it unfolds as pop psychedelia in the way Tame Impala are attributed too much credit for. And as for “Sailing Still”, actual stark-naked emotional balladry, heartbeat piano, solar winds, sounds, grand and open stringscapes, here it is; let’s allow it to speak for itself. Really not very shabby at all, is it? It proceeds at a confident and grandiose pace. It’s a really grown-up bit of songcraft.
And the album gets more and more electric kool-aid as it drops into the rabbit hole of “Miss Moon”; eat me, drink me, full-bore 21st-century pop-psych, all kinds of sonic strands filling the room, an uplifting, cosmic choir somewhere in the mushroomy heavens above. This is actually the kind of gorgeous rainbow pop we’ve come to expect from across the Atlantic, but which very, very few British bands tackle, preferring the homespun eccentric Edwardian take on the psych form. Props, guys. You’ve nailed this. Guitars glow like twig embers in the background, emitting heat and shredding with a fine touch.
Twin pillars of sonic drama both, really big-hearted, bold songs; so, with a little space for air Jack drops the temperature as he opens “Sudoku”, the video for which you’ll find at the end. Jack is initially intimate, in a much more open, sparser songscape – and we should take a second here to appreciate what a pure voice he has, belied by the beard and the minor axe deity sides to him. His voice is pure in a way you most likely haven’t heard since Pale Saints’ Ian Masters. It’s a song for cuddling your loved one to at that dusk festival set, grows big and emotionally generous with glissando and whoah that key change proper threw me actually, really pushing the soar buttons.
“Have You Heard” is pedal-to-the-metal acid-pop thrills and spills, Lily in caress mode; and “Pink Lemonade” is sweet and dayglo as the title suggests, presenting as a spooky, falsetto spook-country, akin to this year’s album from Cory Hanson, Pale Horse Rider. A song for a scorching day high on the South Downs maybe, in the absence of Californian desert.
And now, as the record wends to its end, there’s a flow towards a more acoustic thing through “11 11”, Lily asking: “Are there pills for how I feel? / Feel like crying every day,” lost within strings and strings squeaking from fingers. Again, it’s a really confident, clever, mature bit of songwriting, y’know; of real stature and dextrously arranged. And very Californian, with a Sussex edge. Closer “In A Cage” is meditative with a Sam Beam guitar porch-side easiness swirling with lava lamp effects; maybe, country psychedelia.
I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again during the course of this piece: whoah. Which Way To Happy is sprawling and multi-coloured and really, really big, though ultimately hugely friendly – maybe like the creatures from Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are seen through an acid prism. There’s a lot to digest at first, cos it keeps coming at you in waves, floods your senses, in the best way; it’s not a shy record, not content to be modest. It has every colour of paint imaginable and it wants to action paint now, now, now. That’s not to say it’s impatient, nope – I reckon it’s at least three listens before you really began to map it as a experience.
Actually, it has rather a lot of that effortless pop purity of St Etienne, meeting a rawer, more sprawling American psych vibe. And really, I can’t quickly name a British guitar band who’ve successfully engaged with that level of dayglo ambition. If you can, answers on a postcard please, to the usual address. There’s better times ahead, and Jack and Lily can see that clearly. On this trajectory, don’t bet against the day when they produce the kinda record that vies for a perfect ten. For now, have a quiet marvel at this.
Penelope Isles’ Which Way To Happy is out digitally this Friday, November 5th, with CD and cassette formats also up for order, and vinyl just slightly delayed but also available to secure now; order your copy here.