Sometimes the most impressive thing about a band isn’t so much its musicianship or songwriting, but rather its arrangements. There’s something impressive about a band’s ability to intertwine different instruments and harmonies into architectural wonders of sound, every person playing his part, falling in at just the right moment. But, of course, for the arrangements to work right, you need good musicians and good songwriting, otherwise the structure falls apart like a house of cards on a foundation of marshmallows and Jell-O.
San Francisco fivesome The Court and Spark are one of the few bands that know how to combine these three elements into a musical construction that not only holds together well but sounds amazing. Witch Season, the band’s second full-length, is a balance of intricate arrangements, proficient musicianship and great songwriting. To accomplish this feat, the band enlisted another 20 guest musicians to play on the album, making it an incredibly dense, but overwhelmingly impressive record.
The first song alone features nine guests. The track, “Suffolk Down Upon the Night,” takes the band’s lush alt-country sound and adds a horn section, clavinet, Rhodes, samples and resonating steel guitar. What could have been a cool sounding southwestern rock track became a lively, strangely funky country-rock symphony. Every instrument comes in at just the right time, from the guitar plucks at the chorus to the horn fanfare at the intro to the organ jam session at the end.
Throughout the album, the arrangements vary widely from gigantic displays like “Suffolk” to ambient instrumentals like “The Wandering Tatter.” And no matter how simple or complex, The Court and Spark are perfect at planning just how much is needed in a song. “Out on the Water” starts out peppy and straightforward, as if playing an ordinary, but twangy rock song. But the guitars give way to an atmospheric, vibraphone-filled bridge that comes at just the right time.
Elsewhere, the band takes a simpler approach to their songs, like in the simpler “Denver Annie,” a love song to a girl who MC Taylor croons was his “teenage queen.” Instrumental “St. John the Evangelist” is a brief, yet haunting acoustic ditty.
One of the catchiest tracks, “Hallelujah I,” is a different version of Dead Diamond River‘s “Hallelujah II.” Where part two was a slower track featuring a bevy of guest vocalists, the version on Witch Season is a more rockin’ gospel-blues track that carries a cocky strut and some witty lyrics: “Waiting, waiting for the music to play/ what I didn’t realize, is you gotta pay a deejay.”
Whether you subscribe to the notion that less is more or more is more, you have to give credit to The Court and Spark for knowing when each is acceptable. Their music never seems too bare or overindulgent, which is a very delicate balance to maintain when dealing with the extremes that they do.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.