Was it just me or were you thinking that this record was going to be a breakthrough for The Court and Spark? It was probably just me, but I swear there was an air of potential and promise that hung on around this release like San Francisco fog. After a series of hazy records that ranged from very good (Ventura Whites) to great (Witch Season or Bless You), all informed by a Californian’s sense of Americana that prompted pat comparisons to Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco and Gram Parsons, The Court and Spark seemed ready to add some muscle to their pedal steel heavy stoner drift. When I saw them open for Magnolia Electric Co. (Jason Molina lends some guest vocals on Hearts’ “High Life”) last year the band was without pedal steel virtuoso Tom Heyman and blew the patchouli scented breezes clean out of their songs with a rock heavy take on their catalog. The performance seemed to promise, much in the way that Magnolia Electric Co.‘s live Trials and Errors seemed to hint at a larger sound for the disappointing What Comes After the Blues, something more grandiose, expansive and, well, loud. But what we have with Hearts is more of the same.
Of course more of the same when it comes to Court and Spark means a set of songs uniformly excellent, all informed, intentionally or unintentionally, by the legacy of California country rock. It’s telling that the most obvious point of reference for Hearts is the band’s own back catalog. The Court and Spark have crafted a uniquely identifiable style that certainly owes a debt to the fore mentioned country rock touchstones, but also inhabits an area of off kilter sonic experimentation. The songs on Hearts fit the mold to perfection. Suffice it to say that if you loved Witch Season, Bless You and Dead Diamond River, the band has done nothing to turn you away. You’ll surely find Hearts a pleasure.
So why do I find myself more than a little disappointed with Hearts? What can’t I shake the feeling that this record could’ve been more and have done more for The Court and Spark? Lead singer MC Taylor continues with his laconically delivered drawl that fits the songs like a glove. Lyrically he seems a bit lonelier, a mood that suits the songs on Hearts very well except that when his lyrics were more upbeat the tone of the music was about the same. I suppose what I’m talking about is progression. Every band endeavors to leave a mark on the musical landscape but history says that most marks are made either when a band is reaching for a place they’re a little scared to go or they’re working twice as hard in order to place some critical distance between themselves and a style that’s become an albatross around their necks. What we hear on Hearts is certainly no albatross, songs like “Your Mother Was Lightning” and the shambling “High Life” are high points, but it does run the risk of settling comfortably in with the rest of the band’s work.
There’s little that can be found in the way of missteps on Hearts. It’s a pleasurable listen that reveals a band settled happily into what could become, if they’re not careful, a well-worn rut. The greatest danger the band faces on this record is becoming background music. With the exception of the four instrumental tracks that explore everything from sound collage to jazz to ragtime, The Court and Spark have given us yet another album of well honed Court and Spark songs; if that sounds like a back handed compliment it’s intended to. I was hoping for something exceptional and got something that’s par for the course.