Led by sibling duo and co-songwriters and co-vocalists Lily and Jack Wolter, the Brighton-based indie rock act Penelope Isles had a breakthrough 2019: their self-produced, full-length debut Until The Tide Creeps In was released to critical acclaimed globally. And to support the album, the band shared stages with The Flaming Lips and The Magic Numbers, playing over 100 shows — and they made three Stateside tours, including a stop at the inaugural New Colossus Festival.
The duo’s highly-anticipated Jack Wolters-produced sophomore album Which Way To Happy is slated for a November 5, 2021 release through Bella Union. The album’s material was forged during a period of emotional and professional upheaval for The Wolters and for Penelope Isles. The band spent much of 2019 touring across Europe and America with their bandmates. When the pandemic struck early last year, the band — understandably — felt as though everything was falling apart: much like countless other folks across the world, the members of Penelope Isles found their plans in an indefinite halt. Jack and Lily were dealing with their own respective romantic heartaches and the departure of two bands members, who were replaced with Henry Nicholson, Joe Taylor and Hannah Feenstra for the recording of the album. “A godsend after a low time,” Lily Wolters says.
The Wolters along with Nicholson, Taylor and Feenstra holed into a small cottage in Cornwall to start work on the new album when lockdowns were instituted everywhere. Claustrophobia kicked in, existential anxiety over the pandemic permeated everything and emotions — naturally — ran very high. “We were there for about two or three months, untilately,” says Jack. “It was a tiny cottage 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. Writing and recording new music was a huge part of the recovery process for all of us.”
Finished away from the confines of the Cornwall-based cottage and further flushed out with acclaimed composer Fiona Brice, the band’s sophomore album finds the band further emphasizing the core traits that have won them acclaim globally: the bond between Jack and Lily, a desire to celebrate life in all of its facets and a sensitivity towards complex feelings. But interestingly, Which Way To Happy may arguably be their most ambitious effort to date: Sometimes, the album’s material swoons, sometimes it soars. Other times it bravely says “it’s OK to not be OK.” And this is while balancing a tight rope between expansive, cosmic pop and up-close, heart-felt intimate songwriting.
So far, I’ve written about two of Which Way To Happy‘s singles:
- The cinematic “Sailing Still.” Centered around a shimmering and brooding string arrangement, gently strummed guitar, thunderous drumming, a soaring hook and Lily Wolter’s achingly tender vocals, the heartbreakingly gorgeous track evokes a deep yet familiar yearning for peace in a mad, mad, mad world — while sonically bearing a resemblance to Lily Wolter’s collaboration with Lost Horizons.
- “Iced Gems” is a gently undulating track featuring twinkling keys, fluttering and atmospheric electronics, thumping beats and Lily Wolters’ achingly plaintive vocals. And while being a decided sonic departure, the song is centered around somme deeply intimate lyricism and the duo’s unerring knack for crafting infectious, razor sharp hooks.
Which Way To Happy‘s third and latest single “Sudoku” is a slow-burning and lushly textured bit of dream pop/shoegaze centered around shimmering guitars, plaintive and expressive vocals, a soaring hook and a fuzzy power chord driven solo. Sonically, the track — to my ears, at least — brings back memories of classic Brit Pop.
“‘Sudoku’ is probably the oldest song on the album. We used to play it in our old band, Your Gold Teeth, back on the Isle of Man when Lily and I first started making music,” Penelope Isles’ Jack Wolters explains. “Dad loves a sudoku puzzle whilst he’s sat on the loo. So this one is for him! It’s a special song for us and we wanted to bring it back and play it with Penelope Isles.”
The recently released video for “Sudoku” is an intimate portrait of a middle aged gentleman. We follow the man as he gets up, brushes he teeth, makes himself a healthy breakfast and some tea before heading to his workspace to work on a model airplane. He stops to each lunch with his pet bird, water his plants and get a package delivered — and then back to work. When he finishes, he takes the plane out on a test flight; but it quickly proves to be a frustrating disaster with the plane flying a few feet before crashing.
The video ends with the band throwing the plane in the garbage and heading home to work on a model car.