Clip: The Court and Spark
New Court and Spark Pushed Back To August; Teaser EP Out In June
Summer lawns continue to hiss; ladies of the canyon tame tigers of
[Posted Monday, February 23rd, 2004 05:00:00 Pitchfork Central Time]
Marnie Christenson reports:
We brought you the first rumblings of a new Court and Spark record way back
in May of last year. Folks, we're almost there. I promise this time. Witch
Season is officially complete and ready for an, um, August release.
However, they've posted the following explanation on their website: "We may
be slow, but we're thorough."
Indeed. The album took a year and a half, over 25 musicians, and many
careful hours of production at the expert hands of Scott Solter at Tiny
Telephone Studios. Some of the actual recordings took place there, as well
as 15th Street Studio, and St. John the Evangelist Church, which is home to
a one-of-a-kind pump organ. The album promises to be a crowning achievement
on their career, and is true labor of love. According to frontman MC
Taylor, "We're all as happy as can be about how everything worked out, so
we plan on being plenty busy through the next year."
You can't argue that they've left you high and dry since 2001's Bless You,
considering their numerous side projects, tours, and last fall's rarities
collection, Double Roses. But to further tide you over until August, the
band is planning an as yet unnamed EP to be released in June (or
thereabouts). The EP will feature guest spots from folk legend Linda
Thompson and folk contemporary M Ward, among others.
As a reader of these pages you are most likely aware that all tour
itineraries lead to Austin in mid-March, and the Court and Spark's is no
exception. The band, along with Preston School of Industry, will aim their
vans toward the indie mecca of the SXSW festival and stop at a few choice
locations on the way. But the first order of business is a hometown
appearance at this week's big kickoff of the festival season-- San
Francisco's Noise Pop 2004.
02-27 San Francisco, CA - Thee Parkside (w/ All Night Radio and Hudson
Bell-- Noise Pop)
03-10 Portland, OR - Lola's #
03-13 San Francisco, CA - Bottom of the Hill #
03-14 Los Angeles, CA - Spaceland #
03-15 Phoenix, AZ - TBA #
03-17 Norman, OK - Opolis #
03-18 Austin, TX - Friends (SXSW w/ the Wrens)
03-20 Austin, TX - ALLGO (SXSW w/ Preston School of Industry and +/-)
03-24 Tucson, AZ - Plush
# with Preston School of Industry
.: Pitchfork Review: The Court and Spark: Bless You
.: Pitchfork News: Court and Spark Double Up With New Releases, Tour
.: The Court and Spark:
.: Absolutely Kosher: http://www.absolutelykosher.com
(URL also has links to sound files)
SF's the Court & Spark celebrate the release of 'Witch Season'
by Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate
Thursday, August 26, 2004
Three years ago, you might have gotten away with calling the Court & Spark a neo-California country-rock band. Indeed, the San Francisco group's ties to such forbears as the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers were palpable, underscored by the participation of Gene Parsons, veteran of both those legendary outfits, on the Court & Spark's 2001 CD Bless You.
But in the time it took the often dark and dreamy-sounding quintet to complete two new recordings -- the five-song Dead Diamond River EP, released in June, and the full-length Witch Season, issued Aug. 17 -- a host of new influences seeped into the band's aesthetic.
The title of the new album -- the release of which the Court & Spark celebrates with a hometown show at the Great American Music Hall Thursday, Aug. 26 -- holds a crucial clue. "The song 'Witch Season' was written about halfway through the recording," said guitarist Scott Hirsch in a recent telephone interview, "and that became a kind of theme for making the album, at least for me -- the images and ideas that the name conjures up."
Hirsch's reference probably remains cryptic to many or goes no further than suggesting Donovan's classic "Season of the Witch," perhaps. But for fans more deeply familiar with the history of British folk-rock, Witch Season summons the presence of legendary producer Joe Boyd, whose name appears on seminal recordings by the Incredible String Band, the Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Richard & Linda Thompson and even Toots & the Maytals, New Orleans R&B giant James Booker and REM.
"We worked on this record a couple years," said Court & Spark lead singer and chief songwriter M.C. Taylor in a separate phone conversation, "and, during that time, we started getting into a lot of the Joe Boyd stuff and started delving deeper into the folkie traditions that exist here and in the U.K., which we didn't know much about before."
"Boyd's records just sound different than anything else from that time," Hirsch added. "He had different ideas about the fidelity of the instruments and the personnel. It was all really unique and fresh sounding. In a way, it was almost like an extension of field recording -- capturing the moment rather than manipulating it in any way, and that's what inspires me about it."
Boyd called his company Witchseason, "and we were so infatuated with all those productions," said Taylor, "that we started referring to the record we were making as 'Witchseason,' and it stuck. Later, we differentiated it by separating the words."
As often happens when you begin following one musical trail, the Court & Sparkers, including third founding member James Kim (drums), plus bassist Dan Carr and pedal steel ace Tom Heyman, found other historical paths begging for attention. And the more they learned and absorbed, the more compelled they felt to express it all through the band's original voice.
"The intention is always to make something that is more cohesive as an album," Taylor said. "I'm not sure if we pulled it off, but this record feels more rounded than Bless You."
"With Bless You, noted Hirsch, "we really had a preconceived notion of what we wanted out of the record, and, with Witch Season we really didn't have that. We didn't sit down and say, 'We want it to sound like this.' It was more organic -- songs came, and they were worked on individually. If we wanted to put Jamaican horns on, we just did it. It wasn't like, 'Oh, we shouldn't do that, because it wouldn't sound like we said it was going to sound.' So, there are no two songs that have the same instrumentation or sound [on Witch Season.] That's what took so long, and, in the end, it was worth it."
For a band rooted in hard-core punk (Taylor and Hirsch met at UC Santa Barbara and played together in Exignota), the Court & Spark cuts a surprisingly wide swath through various musical fields. "As we got older and graduated from college and eventually had to think about real things like paying the rent," explained Taylor, "we got tired of the hard-core aesthetic. This was at the dawn of -- I hesitate to use the term 'postrock' -- when Tortoise was first coming around, and the Sea and Cake was out, and [the] Thrill Jockey [label] was king of the land, and all these great Palace records were floating around. We felt like we were hearing young people that were able to play their instruments really well. Calexico's The Black Light was out about then -- a great, great record. We were from bands that ran almost purely on inspiration, and so we decided, 'OK, let's sit down and practice a little bit.'"
Taylor said that going in a "countryish" direction when the band formed in 1998 was the result of "really listening" to country for the first time and discovering "it's a great genre of music." In his own listening, he started with country-rock, notably the Byrds, and "worked backward."
Eventually, other doors opened. "Being in the Bay Area offers you the incredible luxury of being able to find any records that you want to hear," Hirsch said. "You find these records -- and it's different than downloading them or burning CDs from someone -- and on the records there are some names, and you look at those names and you can make the connection -- 'Oh, that guy played on this other record.' And then you've got to go get that record. It snowballs, and you realize it's all connected in all these weird ways."
Those twists and turns manifest themselves throughout the five songs of Dead Diamond River (with Linda Thompson singing on two) and Witch Season's even dozen. Taylor's disarmingly mature and relaxed vocal style and Heyman's pedal steel sustain a western vibe. But while sounding deceptively smooth, Witch Season achieves multilayered complexity by using 20 guest players on everything from trumpet, trombone, French horn and violin to clavinet, accordion and pipe organ.
"The country thing is the most evident in our sound," Taylor granted, "but with Witch Season, we were trying to get into some other stuff that has influenced us. We listen to a lot of dub, and the first song is a straight tip of the hat to King Tubby and Lee Perry and Scientist, and the horn intervals that we used were very Jamaican, or like something from Ethiopiques. There's also a lot of psychedelic folkie John Fahey/Robbie Basho kind of stuff that we were trying to give a little nod to with some of the acoustic guitar-based songs."
"Sometimes I went home after a session," said Hirsch, "and had to ask myself, 'Does this even sound like us?'" But, in the end, explained the guitarist who exulted over his recent discovery of an Alice Coltrane LP (World Galaxy) in a record store in Tucson, it's the determination to "not repeat ourselves" that drives the Court & Spark. And, he concluded, "we're interested in pushing further."
The Court & Spark performs Thursday, Aug. 25 at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell St., SF; show time 9 pm; tickets $11; call (415) 885-0750 or click here for more information. The Mystic Chords of Memory and Call and Response open.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Sunday, April 30, 2006
"The Court and Spark is probably the worst band name anyone's ever
been saddled with," says M.C. Taylor, lead singer, main songwriter and
guitarist for the San Francisco group. For those who are wondering,
the band's name has nothing to do with the similarly titled Joni
Mitchell album. "It's an old grandmotherly saying about the process of
courting," Taylor explains. "How courting a girl sparks the song in a
young man's heart. It's an unwieldy title, but we're used to it."
In the past six years, the Court and Spark has delivered three albums
and one EP filled with wide-open, deeply faceted, highly arranged
music that defies easy categories. You could call it cinematic folk,
progressive post-rock or atmospheric slow-core cabaret. Just don't
call it country.
"I would like to read a review or talk to somebody who's able to put
our music into a broader context than country," Taylor says. "Because
we use a pedal steel guitar, which is a major signifier of country
music, almost everyone asks us if we're country or, what's even worse,
alt-country. It always feels like we're being painted into a corner,
and our reaction is to have our claws come out.
"Country is people like Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens,
Porter Wagoner and, while we admire what they do, our music certainly
doesn't sound like that. We're all music geeks with vast record
collections, and country is in there, but there are a lot of other
things going on as well. Our new album is partially a reaction to
that, pushing the music as far away from country as possible."
The Court and Spark's new album, "Hearts," due out Tuesday on
Berkeley's Strictly Kosher label, showcases the band's expansive
arrangements, once again drawing on the entire history of American and
British pop and folk, with a bit of modern classical music tossed in.
Like its predecessors, "Hearts" is full of unpredictable
instrumentation: Hammered dulcimer, typewriters and harmonium pop up,
as do the cryptic "78 rpm chants" dropped into the mix on "High Life."
That tune starts quietly: a late-night blues featuring a big twangy
guitar, classic '50s piano triplets and Taylor's understated vocals.
Halfway through the track, the band jumps in with a grinding,
hard-rock coda that brings to mind the stomping sound of Steppenwolf
at its most ferocious, full of feedback and ambient noise.
"When we came to the end of that track, we knew what we were looking
for. We wanted something really eerie that would give the music an All
Hallow's Eve kind of vibe," Taylor says. "I discovered a record of
Native American chants and, by playing the LP at 78 and sliding it in
underneath the song, we got exactly the feel we wanted."
The trick to the band's spacious arrangements, Taylor says, is
recording more instrumental parts than can be used, then stripping
things away. "Capaldi," as a result, sounds like classic British folk
rock with its big shimmering guitars accented by odd crashing piano
clusters and a sprinkling of vibraphone notes. The song builds slowly,
ending with an instrumental jam that gradually climbs to a powerful
finish, despite its measured tempo.
"We used a lot of fat guitar chords and kept adding more guitar parts,
going for something bombastic," Taylor says. "The more guitars we
added, the smaller it sounded. We discovered it sounded bigger when we
used fewer instruments."
Taylor uses the same approach when he's writing the band's cryptic
lyrics -- less, he says, is more.
"I've always been a fan of oblique writing. The lyrics mean something
specific to me, but I have a fear about using plain language, so I use
words that aren't recognizable as a story. I like to paint mental
pictures, rather than writing a straight narrative. I like sparseness
and carefully chosen words. Joan Didion is a big influence of mine.
She can conjure up vast, elaborate pictures in your mind with just a
"Hearts" is more musically adventurous than its predecessor, "Witch
Season," which took three years to complete because of its large cast
of guests and extensive overdubs. This time, the band knocked out the
tunes in just over a year.
"We started working on 'Hearts' right after we got finished with the
'Witch Season' tour," Taylor says. " 'Witch Season' was very labor
intensive and physically draining. We put a lot of pressure on
ourselves to make a big, sprawling album, which we did, but we knew
three years was too long to work on an album. Bands can form, get
successful and break up in that time."
While the music of the Court and Spark may be meditative on record, in
concert it's a different story.
"Making records and playing live are totally different things," Taylor
says. "Some bands go into the studio and do what they do live, but we
don't. We can't create all the overdubs live, but we try to do as much
of the record as we can without sounding so bloated that there isn't
any motion to the performance. We're a rock band, and we don't want to
be yoked to the massive things we do in the studio. When we play live,
we play the tunes we can really rock out on."
The Court and Spark play a CD-release party for "Hearts" at 9 p.m. May
12 at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell St., San Francisco.
$12. (415) 885-0750, www.musichallsf.com.
J. poet is a freelance writer.