Like almost everyone else in the world, the covid pandemic knocked Penelope Isles‘ world off its axis. In March 2020, the Brighton quartet, led by siblings Jack and Lily Wolter, were on the road promoting their debut album Until The Tide Creeps In. And then, all of a sudden, they weren’t.
So instead of baking banana bread or overdosing on Netflix, the band hired a cottage in Cornwall and got on with the job of writing a second album. Which Way To Happy is the result, and it feels like a big step off – it’s a huge, anthemic-sounding album, at odds with the claustrophobic, anxiety-inducing circumstances of its recording.
At times it sounds like the missing link between shoegaze and ’60s influenced power pop – songs like Terrified crash in beautifully: big bright and sunny, bringing back memories of C90 jangly indie pop.
Yet there’s a lot more going underneath the surface – the presence of Dave Fridmann, the legendary producer behind such classic acts as Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips give the album an extra gravitas. The likes of album centrepiece Miss Moon with its fuzzy beauty and euphoric tempo changes could have been directly descended from an album like Mercury Rev’s All Is Dream.
Fiona Brice’s strings also give extra substance to the Wolter’s songs – 11:11 is a beautifully woozy ballad with Brice’s strings accentuating Lily Wolter’s affecting vocals (“I feel like crying everyday” runs one line) while the nostalgic Pink Lemonade is almost alt-country, with the Wolters’ dual vocals blending beautifully over Brice’s dreamy strings.
It would be easy to pigeonhole Penelope Isles as a simple indie-pop band, but in reality they jump from genre to genre effortlessly. Iced Gems is shiny, glacial electro pop, while the gorgeous ballad Sailing Still ramps up the emotion, building up majestically to its climax. There are even moments that dip into psych-rock, especially on the closing In A Cage.
Which Way To Happy is an album that is one to immerse yourself in, and be enveloped by its sound. The presence of Fridmann has obviously helped them to raise their game, but it’s the songs on this second album that have really taken them up to another level: it’s as if the unique circumstances of writing and recording have pushed them further than they thought possible.
There may be no one track that could be a crossover commercial hit for the Wolter siblings, but this is an album full of signs of longterm progress. This is the sound of a band in it for the long haul, and by the sounds of it, it’s going to be quite the journey for them.