The Austin, Texas band, Sparkwood may not be a member of Elephant 6 stable, but their debut release, The La-La Crutch, reveals that the band just might have lifted several pages from the playbook of their Athens, Georgia contemporaries. The band echoes the minimalist, ‘60s influenced, indie-pop approach to music-making that have made bands like Music Tapes and Of Montreal so forgettable. The only difference being that, Sparkwood doesn’t carry the Brian Wilson/Pet Sounds torch that the others swear by, instead the band seems to take its cues from Ben Folds.
Like Ben Folds Five, most of Sparkwood’s music is centered around the piano playing Bart Padar, who also penned all of the album’s 17 tracks—and there are some excellent tracks here. “Marianne” rocks like a classic Cheap Trick song, while “Trilogy I” with it’s tangy, 4/4 piano line is reminiscent of Queen’s “Killer Queen” until it dives into a heavy “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” vibe that is absolutely powerful. Then there are outstanding pop numbers like “Wurly”, “Wonderin’ Why” and “Music Lane” which show that Padar is a top-notch pop songwriter when he wants to be. I would be remiss to leave out the wonderful guitar work of Whit Williams on “Trilogy II”. His fuzzed-out, melodic guitar lines are magical and stand out as one of the true, shining moments on this disc.
Now for the bad news. Vocally, this disc is a major disappointment. Padar, although a promising songwriter, isn’t much of a singer. Like Andy Gonzales of Marshmallow Coast, Padar writes catchy, hook-laden pop songs and then ruins them by not stepping aside and employing a vocalist who can give a fresh interpretation of his songcraft. As well, the backing vocals on every song are sung off key. Whether this is intentional or not, it completely tarnishes the disc’s most impressive tracks.
Like most indie-pop records I’ve reviewed, you get some really great moments, but you almost never get a thoroughly consistent performance. This holds true for Sparkwood. I may find myself humming several of these tunes during the course of the day, but there is far too much vocal baggage for me to ever keep The La-La Crutch within arms reach.