Sunday, July 24, 2016

Spark & Whisper

Some friends understand, but still others are surprised that our tastes in music are rather eclectic, and everything we listen to isn't as intense and extreme as last Friday night's Swans show.  Other nights, however, you can put a cold one in our hands and play us some songs about a ramblin' man, as Hank Jr. once sang, 'cause you know we love to hear those guitar sounds.  In addition to post-rock, our tastes also include country, western swing, bluegrass, and folk, and we're basically pushovers for good folk rock.  Basically, we like anything that's done well (and dislike anything that's not).

Fairfax, California's Spark & Whisper play folk rock and they play it very, very well.  Their music leans more toward the folk end of the folk-rock spectrum, with tasty flourishes of bluegrass and even a little occasional honky-tonk, but that doesn't mean their music is sparse or austere by any means. As a matter of fact, they play satisfying, full-bodied folk-rock anthems, mini-masterpieces centered around the warm harmonies of Anita Sandwina and Velvy Appleton.

Their new album, Monument, won't be released until November 15 (presale starts August 15), but Appleton was kind enough to provide me with a preview (one of the few perks of music blogging).  It immediately sounds exactly like a Spark & Whisper album (it's their third) as there's no mistaking the vocals of the two songwriters, Anita and Velvy.  But they've given their instruments a little more room than on past records, pushing the sound just ever so slightly more toward the rock end of the folk-rock spectrum.  This makes for one of the most satisfying and interesting of Spark & Whisper's three fine releases, and there's a lot of interesting touches - for example, the bowed cello intro on Far From This World and some funky banjo and mandolin backing on Bottom of the Well - that you might not even catch on first listen and makes repeated listens so satisfying. Listen to the tender, intimate interplay of guitar and cymbals that opens I Am Yours, followed by Anita's yearning, soulful vocals, and you're hooked for the duration of the song, even before the "I am, I am" hook kicks in and the guitar-and-cymbal motif repeats at the bridge.

The eleven cuts that make up Monument alternate between Sandwina compositions (and lead vocals) and those of Appleton, but both voices (they harmonize so well) can be heard on every track.  I hear something new to love on every listen to Monument.  The penultimate track, California, is my personal favorite, a downright foot-stomping anthem and pure ear-candy that will have you singing the words hours after hearing the song.  The California Department of Tourism is out of their minds if they don't buy the rights to Velvy wailing "CALLIE-fornia" for future state-wide promotions.  It's a better advertisement for the charms of the state than even Best Coast's The Only Place, and also provides a nice setting for some tasty guitar and pedal steel solos. After the rousing California, the album closes on a gentler note with Anita's pensive Bless This Mountain, letting the listener catch their breath and sending them off with a warm glow not unlike that of a glass or two of Marin County cabernet.

You can listen to Spark & Whispers' previous recordings on their Bandcamp page, including their self-titled debut (2011) and sophomore effort Ghost Towns (2013), as well as The Circle (2014), the first single from Monument and a harbinger of the more sophisticated songwriting that makes the album Spark & Whisper's potential breakout LP.

Spark & Whisper may not be that well known beyond their native Northern California just yet, but a couple years ago, I burned a copy of Ghost Towns to CD to play in my car, and it's been in heavy rotation therein ever since.  People often ask me who that is playing in my car, but after Monument is released, with a few lucky breaks and the right promotion (hopefully starting right here with this review), people won't be asking anymore.

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