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The Court & Spark
Absolutely Kosher

It's the Fourth of July, and here I am, writing a record review. The sulfurous smoke has long since cleared from the air over City Park, but the sounds of illegal fireworks continue sporadically throughout the neighborhood. Someone across the way even has a mortar. (It's always exciting to have high-grade explosives in the hands of amateurs.) Thus, the walls of my apartment are intermittently illuminated and windowpanes intermittently rattled. With Fort Collins awash in rockets' red glares, it seems as if there could be no better soundtrack than Hearts.

Up until a few weeks ago, I'd only heard of the Court & Spark. I had no idea what sort of music to expect — especially from a band sharing its name with an iconic 1974 Joni Mitchell album. What I've discovered is a record intoning muggy July nights, fireflies in the backyard, an easy chair, and a glass in hand. Nights spent sitting out on the patio with your older brothers, gazing into the distance, and theorizing how to best solve the world's problems. In other words, a laid-back, summertime affair.

Hearts begins with "Let's Get High." A shimmering, atmospheric opening quickly gives way to clattering drums and electric guitars on the verge of feeding back. The intensity only settles during the verses, dropping back to a bass-and-drums arrangement. In these sections, M.C. Taylor's soft vocals take center stage. Then, as if the suggestions he makes in the verses incite an emotional conflict, the sonic landscape shifts back into a wailing, turbulent mass. It's a brilliant use of tension and resolve — a tactic employed to great effect throughout the album.

Take the next song, for example. The contrast between the knotted-stomach dynamic created in "Let's Get High" and the wanderlust relaxation of "We Were All Uptown Rulers" is only amplified by their juxtaposition. It's my long-held belief that major-7 chords are the unsung heroes of summer, bringing peace wherever they go. This song proves it. "But I meant what I said when I said 'Who cares?'/ I've got the sun in my eyes and the wind in my hair/ But I don't care." Lines like this one exemplify the mood evoked by a conga backbeat and the wistful interjections of a pedal steel.

Indeed, moods are the lifeblood of Hearts. The Court & Spark's expertly crafted soundscapes flow smoothly from beginning to end. There is nothing out of place. Some bands resort to angular arrangements simply as a means of attention grabbing. With Hearts, there is no need for sharp, jutting edges, as it is already a consistently engaging listen, full of nuance.

Even lyrically, the band delivers. On "Berliners," the following line of thought unfolds: "I've been bending the tops of the trees/ I've been wrecked along the shore/ And a question that rocks my soul/ Rocks my soul like a bell/ If I take care of you, who's gonna take care of me?" As if that's not heartbreakingly timid enough, the chorus brings the punch line: "Talk is cheap... lovers cannot be friends." Here, once again, is the tension and resolution. We have hopeful (albeit questioning) longing paired with harsh realization. Resolution need not always bring positive results.

Elsewhere, the album features several interesting sound collages, from the self-assured "Smoke Signals" to the ominous portamento of the cello on "The Oyster Is a Wealthy Beast." "Gatesnakes” is perhaps the strangest of the wordless songs. Synthesizers, filters, and loops create a backdrop of odd noises and squeaks. A piano enters, playing a melancholy chord progression, and then ends abruptly. The experiment creates an uneasy feeling that leads perfectly into "The Ballad of Horselover Fat." The atmospheric bits of found sound continue through to the end. The song ends with the repeated phrase: "As a man, I fade away." It's fitting. The instruments drop out one by one, until only the drums remain, the song fading away as if enveloped by a slowly loping fog.

For some reason, Hearts reminds me of where I grew up in Pennsylvania. A cornfield was my backyard. Out in the distance, about halfway up the hillside, amid a sea of oak, grew a stand of three pine trees. Living in Colorado now, a pine tree doesn't seem so special — but there, in Warren County, the pines served as welcome accents among the deciduous undulations. As a kid, I always dreamt of walking out across the field toward those three trees. I never did.

Hearts is an album about never reaching those pine trees, yet being satisfied at knowing they're still there. An album of family history. An album of roots. The Court & Spark have crafted a fine eulogy for forgotten dreams.

by Sam Ernst

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