The Court & Spark
ocky, alien country music; the opening minutes of “To See the Fires,” the leadoff track on The Court & Spark’s breakthrough sophomore effort, Bless You. Sad bastard alt-country? Sure. But C&S;’s psychedelic honky-tonk was as much Eno as it was Garcia, their boogie-less pondering slack-jawed and optimistic.
Compared to its mercurial predecessor, Bless You, Witch Season seemed overly steeped in studio fuckwithery, its warm tapes swollen with so many organs and steel strings that the songs seemed swallowed whole. The band had improved markedly as craftsmen, but where they used to linger and drift, they now sank.
But an alt-country band can’t live on atmosphere alone, and that’s why, ultimately, Witch Season was a success, though a skewed one. You can wax poetic all afternoon about true DIY spirit and how amateurism can force creativity (necessity is the mother of invention, natch), but C&S; trades in music—country, specifically—that has traditionally benefited from increased skill, and Witch Season’s alt-country Slurpee allowed the band ample room to stretch its legs.
As such, C&S; step comfortably into their fourth album, Hearts, recorded primarily at the band’s home studio. Hearts still packs its dozen cuts with plenty of instruments—pedal steel guitars, Farfisa organs, trombones and bells all appear on the first track—but the band seems better equipped to pull frontman MC Taylor’s songs out of the slush.
Taylor’s drawl sometimes seems so stereotypical that it conjures visions of the Jay Farrar Workingman’s Union 517 (Sebastopol region) coercing him into fronting an alt-country outfit. Taylor’s echoes are so warm and comfortable, in fact, that it becomes easy to lose him in the mix, a problem that was especially pronounced on Witch Season. Here, his improved lyric capacity, coupled with his band’s refreshing focus, allows his best lines to crystallize into Nor-Cal fever dreams.
Taylor succeeds most affectingly while repping the memories and world-wear of a much older crooner, but whatever his muse, he haunts Hearts both intimately and credibly: “I was famous long ago / And buried before you were born … Alive I was a private man in my beautiful town / Strung out like a pearl.” He’s a compelling poet here because he refuses to play the credibility game country music often demands; he is consistently bright and lucid, making a mess of his sincerity on “We Were All Uptown Rulers”: “I meant what I said / When I said ‘Who cares?’”
Critics will point fingers and cry “homogenous” and “adult-contemporary,” and it’s tough to disagree: At times, Hearts rolls so smoothly that recalling specific tracks is difficult. But C&S; don’t pretend to be anything but a particularly creative country band, and they space their sparkling moments effectively, displaying their varied chops on three separate instrumental tracks and lining up some of the brighter, peppier numbers (“Your Mother Was the Lightning”) in the album’s final third.
Hearts is a good bet to wet the collective pants of NPR DJ’s and Believer subscribers in the coming months, but don’t get put off: Taylor can put you in unexpected places, sometimes forcefully, and his band has finally found a balance between atmosphere, orchestration, and songcraft. Polished, gummy, and humid as hell, Hearts’ serendipitous charm bleeds syrup into the impending summer evenings.