San Francisco by way of Santa Barbara quintet the Court & Spark wowed its listeners in 2004 with the release of Witch Season, a more experimental and listener-friendly take on the music of the band, which has been likened on more than one occasion to the alt-country beginnings of the Band and Gram Parsons. This year the band named after the Joni Mitchell album return with Hearts, a title steeped in meaning as it is one of the saddest albums I’ve ever heard, yet breathes, flutters and beats with a pulse that can only mean the songs are truly alive.
At first listen, Hearts is a mellower, more straightforward affair, but upon each successive listen, layers are stripped away, and you discover hidden treasures of sounds, melodies and instruments that may have escaped you the first time around. The layering starts with the catchy Tom Petty-esque “Let’s Get High,” which features several guitar tracks, piano, bass, two organs, drums, horns, bells and the lonely twang of pedal steel. M.C. Taylor’s honeyed vocals float over each successive song despite the complexity or simplicity of the arrangement and composition. In fact, the combination of the pedal steel and Taylor’s voice are lethal to a good mood, yet you somewhat want to revel in the sadness. He repeats, “Who cares” and “I don’t care” in “We Were All Uptown Rulers,” but he belies the indifference with his tone, letting us know that maybe he cares way too much. Guest Zoe Keating of Rasputina plays a haunting cello line throughout the intricate instrumental “The Oyster is a Wealthy Beast,” sounding like The Beatles’ experimental work as played by Animal Collective.
Things don’t really get moving at any kind of speed until “Capaldi,” the true centerpiece of the album. Possibly named after one of the founders of the band Traffic, Jim Capaldi, the song is nearly epic at six minutes long, with the same blues meets prog feel of Capaldi’s band. There’s more than a touch of the Grateful Dead and / or Pink Floyd in here as well with dramatic piano and guitar lines in the breaks. “Berliners” follows after another instrumental in “A Milk White Flag.” The song would fit right into an indie art house western film, as one can imagine looking over the expanse of a desert landscape, but with a modern feel. “Smoke Snigals” (yes it’s spelled that way) is a loping horse of an instrumental, and you can find yourself bouncing up and down in the saddle with the song. “Your Mother Was the Lightning” is more of a straightforward honky-tonk country song with the Jaymar toy piano adding a weird and playful touch to the barroom happenings.
The album ends with “The Ballad of Horselover Fat,” a song named after a character in the Philip K. Dick religio-philosophical sci-fi novel, VALIS. It always pleases me to find other fans of his books, like when I found out that one of my favorite authors, Jonatham Lethem, has a tattoo of the cover of UBIK on his arm. The cool thing about the name Horselover Fat is that it is a translation, somewhat, of the author’s name. In Latin, horse lover is Phil-Hippos, and Dick is the German translation of fat. M.C. Taylor makes reference to the pink or purple light that the character in the book receives as a sign from God. You’ll have to read the book to really appreciate the song and the reference, but it’s absolutely brilliant, melancholy and hopeless all at the same time.
Most of the references to love throughout Hearts mentions it in the past tense saying things like “I was your lover” and referring to the speaker as an “old man in the gloaming.” Listening to this album everyday could likely be hazardous to your constitution, but every once in a while, putting this album on the stereo is an absolute necessity. Lyrics of pure poetry glide along aching postmodern country and western tunes. They called the album Hearts, but what they didn’t mention were that they were all breaking.