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The Court and Spark

The Court and Spark is a dry desert wind; dark and hypnotic, sorrowful and forlorn, with an undercurrent of old-soul country. The San Francisco group's music takes the dark side of The Byrds and combines it with the lonely heartbreak of Nick Drake and Townes Van Zandt. The results are grand and sweeping spectral soundscapes -- soundtracks for driving down a long dusty highway in late June.

2000's Ventura Whites introduced the The Court and Spark's unique style of American melancholia to those not lucky enough to live in the Bay Area, where their wistful, sweeping live performances regularly captivate the locals. The vocals on Ventura Whites truly shine. Singer MC Taylor has the kind of voice that lulls and soothes you while tearing your heart out and setting it gently beside you on your pillow. His voice is deep and ragged, weary and warm, and always on the verge of cracking or breaking down. Taylor's plaintive vocals are perfectly underpinned by the band's haunting shuffle and twang, which is augmented with Hammond B-3 and Silvertone organs, pedal steel, banjo, dobro, mandolin, slide, glockenspiel, cello, found sounds, and field recordings. Heavenly harmonies settle perfectly into a melancholic and nostalgic sound that evokes haunting elegies for lost love and broken spirits.

On The Court and Spark's splendid 2001 follow-up, Bless You, you'll hear a band that has gained confidence in the strength of its ideas and sound (and which has learned the value of immaculate production; the mix here sounds superb). Taylor's distinctive rough-edged voice is once again at the center, where it belongs. It's complemented nicely by quiet backing vocals from occasional collaborator Wendy Allen. Lead guitarist Scott Hirsch's sensitive slide and drummer James Kim's measured tempos form the basis of the group's instrumental sound, while keening pedal steel, liquid organs, and tasteful, subtle tape loops fill in spaces here and there. As before, The Court and Spark takes many musical cues from artists like Dillard and Clark, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Townes Van Zandt, but their thoughtfully sad and slow ethos also suggest a number of contemporaries, from Low to Lambchop.

Line up all these coordinates and you arrive at a new musical place that's not country, not folk, not rock, not pop, nothing you can file the band under and be done with it -- but it's a vast open place full of unmistakably American yearning. The Court and Spark's beautifully inspired and timeless music is intensely personal, devastatingly lovely, and steeped in tradition, but with a pocket full of dark and dusty secrets to add to country music's canon.