Through the Sparks Lazarus Beach

[Skybucket; 2007]

Others: The Jayhawks, Josh Rouse, Wilco, Mercury Rev

Clearly out to prove that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, Birmingham, AL posse Through the Sparks are quietly determined to right one of the most irritating wrongs of modern pop music: that it has to be predictable or bordering on formulaic. Their latest album, Lazarus Beach, takes on a truckload of sounds and flip-flops between styles from song to song, and even within them. Reference points are almost too plentiful: part ruminating folk, part Americana, even more world-beating power pop, Lazarus Beach sounds at times like Manchester world-beaters James, a little bit like the late, great San Fran band The Sneetches, and, as many claim, like the Jayhawks or Wilco -- and many more. “Playful pop, with piano” is an accurate description. Hearing that phrase normally would, firstly, make me cringe and then, secondly, think of people like Ben Folds or Josh Rouse. However, comparing Through the Sparks to those two would do them a disservice; they are neither as glossy nor as hokey as those singer/songwriters.

That is a pretty varied list of touchstones. Although measuring sticks are helpful, Through the Sparks are their own band, and quite a unique one at that. Not only is the music on Lazarus Beach considered and original (more on that later), but the words are thankfully thought out as well. In wordsmith Jody Nelson, Through the Sparks have an ace lyricist who always manages to skirt an idea or pull back the reins before things get too obvious, thus giving every song on Lazarus Beach a great deal of ambiguity and mystique. And if there is a chance you can pop in the odd “polymers” or “Geiger Meter” into the mix, so much the better. The album is peppered with clever little couplets like “And if the Devil has a woman, bet her skin is soft and gold/ She tans by the fire of the burning immortal souls” (the late-period-Beatles-inspired “A Natural Machine”), and the double dose of “A town conceived in the seventies/ With plans inspired by an airbrushed landscape on a van./ With blueprints drawn with a boot-heel scratched in sand./ The boomer boomed there with their Astroturf in hand” (“Mexico,” co-written with Greg Slamen).

Musically, Lazarus Beach is just as intriguing, but proves busy and difficult to embrace at times because of it. That is not to say that parts of the album are not exceptionally stylish. “Local Moon” is one of those songs that sound so simple that they could have been written 20-30 years ago (but not two or three), and contains a shimmering west coast pop hook. The opening track, “L. Roi,” is a poignant and lovely ode to a lost friend. Special mention must also be given to the arrangement of and performance by the album’s additional players, who threaten to steal the spotlight with their horn lines and flourishes every time they appear. But when you factor in the too short, two-part “Action Figure Graveyard” (with its melancholic touches and campfire strum-along), the music hall/variety feel of “Falling Out of Favor with the Neighbors” (which could effectively pass as a Rufus Wainwright B-side), the excellent closer “A Natural Machine,” and a couple of instrumental “segues,” Lazarus Beach is a pretty schizophrenic stew. It has loads of character but also suffers from a Tetris-like squeezing of too many oddly shaped colorful idea blocks into its tight grid.

Having too much going on unnerves us. Without choosing wisely, Through the Sparks start acting on too many ideas, and Lazarus Beach loses focus. In the aforementioned “Mexico,” Nelson addresses American sprawl by asking for someone to “Please Dianetically explain this urge to roam.” Myself, I need an explanation from the band on the urge to experiment. Through the Sparks are admirable, and Lazarus Beach is a good album, but the inserting of too many musical pickles tends to cloud the brine far too often for my taste. The most successful multi-taskers are also the best organizers and editors; Lazarus Beach could have used a little maintenance and should have accomplished a lot more with its hefty surplus of good ideas and intentions.

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