The Court and Spark Bio 2004 - Simple Text

In assembling his seminal 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, Harry Smith, the unkempt shaman of the '60s folk revival, was fascinated by the strange specificity of distinctly American places outside the postwar hegemony of suburban houses and cars, dollars and cents: the spiritual harmonies of the Carter Family's Appalachia, for instance, or the genial warmth of Mississippi John Hurt's native hill country. Writer Greil Marcus grouped these places under the banner of "Smithville" - "a mystical body of the republic," he called it.

That brand of earthy mysticism, by turns naïve and very wise, captivated the members of The Court and Spark as they wrote their third album, Witch Season, and the accompanying Dead Diamond River EP (both on Absolutely Kosher Records), listening from across the better part of a century to the sound of people in awe of life- awe that reappears in the 60's-era Nonesuch Explorer records, Joe Boyd's exotic British folk productions, and John Fahey's eclectic guitar meditations. But what does it mean to make music in awe of life if you're a group of California boys nearing the end of your third decade, as indoctrinated as anyone into the 21st century landscape of cultural cross-pollination, slick marketing and high-speed communication? If you're The Court and Spark, it means stepping back from the world's mad rush and finding out what it really is to be a citizen of the city of San Francisco in the year 2004. And if the Bay Area has a cultural geography all its own - it's no coincidence that Smith began seriously collecting 78s for his Anthology after moving to Berkeley in the '40s - then The C&S are cartographers of a sort, charting the zany energy of the region's crooked streets, the feel of milky afternoon sunlight as it seeps over the crown of Twin Peaks, the vertiginous beauty of Highway 1 as it twists along the Pacific Ocean towards Mendocino County.

California has always had a place in The Court and Spark's music, which is as "western" in flavor as it is "country." But after the 2001 release of their acclaimed sophomore album Bless You, which saw them collaborate with legendary ex-Byrd and Burrito Brother Gene Parsons, the band members consciously sought to improve their musicianship and expand their sonic palette, and in the process found themselves creating even more nuanced snapshots of their San Francisco lives. Dead Diamond River offers a peek into the band's Mission District abode - warm, shimmering, homespun tunes played around the kitchen table, garnished with field recordings from Marin, famous folkie Linda Thompson's wistful harmonies, and a dash of recreational substances.

Witch Season is something vaster, painted in broad strokes over a span of nearly two years. Bay Area producer Scott Solter, renowned for his work with John Vanderslice and Spoon as well as all previous C&S efforts, was crucial in balancing the finished album's blend of compositional sophistication and casual atmospherics. While Witch Season's arrangements are undeniably ambitious and as ethereal as fog off the bay, the focus never wanders far from its infectious hooks and intimate melodies. Plaintive and searching, M.C. Taylor's vocals are as brown as the Muir Woods topsoil, perfect for his impressionistic portraits of a rustic, dreamy California. Scott Hirsch's tremoloed guitar billows and snaps like sails in the wind, and Tom Heyman's whistling pedal steel traces the arc of the sky overhead. James Kim and Dan Carr's spacious drum and bass patterns provide the frame on which the whole canvas is hung. Numerous area musicians lent support too, including longtime collaborator Wendy Allen, whose harmonies are a cool counterpoint to Taylor's grainy warmth, and SF Symphony organist Charles Rus on the one-of-a-kind pipe organ housed in the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist.

"Years roll by…the world slows down," Taylor murmurs on the gentle lullaby "Swimming Endlessly" near the album's close. It gets at the root of what The Court and Spark is about, and what they've done better here than ever before: looking beyond time's relentless march to create a portrait of place as something personal - and something immeasurably precious.

-Jesse Ashlock, NYC
c. 2004. The Court and Spark