The Court & Spark Hearts

[Absolutely Kosher; 2006]

Styles: alt-country, country rock, country soul
Others: Beachwood Sparks, Lambchop, Flying Burrito Brothers

At this point, proclaiming alt-country to be coasting on fumes is really a clichéd move, and in the past few months, I've been hit repeatedly with evidence to the contrary. For one, the Centromatic album Fort Recovery kicks like a gorgeous and stubborn mule, and secondly, Band of Horses' majestic, country-tinged epics on Everything All the Time point to some interesting chemistry potential across various genres, including country, indie rock, folk, and (gulp) even emo. Of course, this is only the most recent stuff, and I wouldn't want to deny the persistent relevance of indie country stalwarts like Jason Molina and Will Oldham. So while alt-country seems to be more vital than some might admit, the new album by The Court & Spark has arrived and yearns to feel-out even more expansion of the musical palette.

Hearts is an album of divergent tendencies that at times struggles with its own expansiveness, but ultimately its pervasively laid-back approach allows everything to flow more smoothly than it should. Almost as a listening environment suggestion, the opening track "Let's Get High" implores us to kick back and mellow out for the journey ahead, and its ambling and surprisingly soulful blues could certainly go well with a mild-level of intoxication. M.C. Taylor's voice is almost a narcotic in itself, with its self-assured and comforting tone easing any willing listener into a mild state of bliss, particularly on "Berliners" and "High Life." However, the band should get its share of praise as well for creating such wonderfully soothing music, highlighted on the four instrumentals interspersed throughout the album, of which Scott Hirsch's solo ventures "A Milk White Flag" and "Gatesnakes" stand as particularly memorable examples.

If the album falters at all, it's in scattered moments, like on "Capaldi" or "Your Mother Was the Lightning," where the band kicks it up a bit more into rock mode and the gear shift feels a little clunky. The Court & Spark seem to be at their collective best when they take it easier rather than harder. While they can pull it off, Taylor's voice begins to sound a bit too weak, and the intricacies of their sound get covered over. These are small imperfections in an otherwise wonderful album, though, and any fan of alt-country would be doing themselves a disservice if they didn't give it a spin.

1. Let's Get High
2. We Were All Uptown Rulers
3. Birmingham to Blackhorse Road We Wandered
4. The Oyster Is a Wealthy Beast
5. Capaldi
6. A Milk White Flag
7. Berliners
8. Smoke Signals
9. Your Mother Was the Lightning
10. High Life
11. Gatesnakes
12. The Ballad of Horselover Fat