Breaking the Rules

The Court and Spark take their music beyond urban alt-country

It's not uncommon to wish to re-experience youth with the hard-won wisdom and sophistication of an adult. But with The Court and Spark, MC Taylor is working toward being able to apply the headlong energy of youth to the grown-up music his band creates now.

"As we get older, we tend to get a little hemmed into certain methods of how things are done, and it takes a little courage to try something new, or maybe say, 'We're not going to go in that safe direction' some of the time," said Taylor via cell phone last Saturday morning on his way for coffee.

Taylor's the 30-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist for The Court and Spark (his friends and band mates call him Mike, by the way). The San Francisco-based band's latest CD, Hearts, explores numerous new directions beyond the drowsy urban alt-country for which it has become known.

On the CD are gentle psychedelic country tunes; bubblegum pop hooks and elaborate melodies; hypnotic instrumentals; funky Americana grooves; heart-of-darkness blues, hauntingly spare folk, rubbery soul and the occasional distorted guitar freak-out. You can hear in the music echoes of The Byrds, The Band, Brian Eno, Lou Reed, Townes Van Zandt and even a little dub-oriented sonic manipulation.

While several standout cuts prove immediately engaging--"Let's Get High" (with its surreal wah-wah effect), the dramatic '70s-rock riffing of "Capaldi" and the toy-piano-driven two-step "Your Mother Was the Lightning"--some of the tunes on Hearts require a few spins to grow on the listener. But once they do, the album seems deeper and more alluring.

Not surprising, then, that Hearts is quickly becoming the most widely publicized and acclaimed album in The Court and Spark's career.

The Court and Spark's roots stretch back to 1993, when band members Taylor, guitarist-keyboardist and engineer Scott Hirsch and drummer James Kim were freshmen at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Hirsch and Taylor had a furious noise-punk band, Ex-Ignota, in those days. Those were days of growth and exploration, Taylor said.

"Musically, that experience taught me everything about everything, especially how to take chances. We didn't understand anything about musical technique, or arrangements, or about anything like what it was like to maintain a band. It was all pure inspiration, running on impulse. Which was cool. It was very visceral."

After graduation, all three friends found themselves in the Bay Area. They formed The Court and Spark in San Francisco's colorful, Latino-dominated Mission District with steel guitarist Tom Heyman and bassist Dan Carr.

The band's name is not a reference to the famous '70s album Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell, but to the old saying ("You might've heard your grandmother use it," Taylor said) alluding to budding romance.

Since 2000, The Court and Spark has made a series of distinguished albums--Ventura Whites, Bless You, Witch Season--and a pair of critically acclaimed EPs, Double Roses and Dead Diamond River.

Along the way, they welcomed into the recording process several notable guest musicians, including Gene Parsons, M. Ward and Linda Thompson.

But Hearts is the first The Court and Spark CD created entirely at the communal living and recording space known as Alabama Street Station.

Taylor admitted he no longer sleeps there, but it remains the band's headquarters. "I actually moved out of that place in October. I got a place with my girlfriend. We got this amazing deal, but it's right down the street. So it's still like we're all together."

At Alabama Street, the band members had the luxury to record as long, as late and as much as they liked, without racking up prohibitively large studio bills.

"We weren't watching the clock. There were no financial restrictions whatsoever. One expense we had was that, when we needed to, we would rent really good microphones and stuff."

Taylor estimated that studio time in San Francisco costs an average $600 to $700 per day. He said he and the other musicians didn't feel obligated to use everything they put on tape.

"We could record and record and record for days and then realize that maybe a certain song or direction wasn't working and not be too concerned about how much we might've spent."

A wide variety of instrumentation is always on hand when the band records. They've been known to include Moog synthesizer, cello, Dobro, vibes, mandolin, ukelele, organ, bells, brass, reeds, harp, whistles, all manner of keyboards, tape loops and a typewriter in the arrangements.

But sometimes what The Court and Spark leaves out of the music is as important as that which is put in, Taylor said, usually in the interest of building drama and tension.

"What the listener doesn't hear is the 20 other instruments that were on a track, making the song more obvious, and then we took out. We're always working toward making songs as tense as we can before releasing them.

"We did a good job with that, I think, on 'Birmingham to Blackhorse Road We Wandered.' At the beginning, it's just the harmonium, horns and whistles, and no guitar. We originally had an acoustic guitar strumming all the way through the song, giving it that rhythmic base, but we decided to bring it in later. Which maybe seems weird, to go without the backbone of the song's melody at first, but we thought that was what it needed."

Now that Taylor feels he's learned many of the rules of music, he also feels comfortable breaking them, he said.

"It's interesting: After having done Ex-Ignota for all those years and being in that world, where it was totally inspiration and pure energy, once we started touring and playing with The Court and Spark, we kind of opened that Pandora's box of technique and musicality and harmony.

"We sort of, you know ... in a way, you become overzealous, like a religious convert later in life, really fanatic about doing it right and by the book. So I think we tried to make the music sound as perfect as possible, maybe almost a little precious, and I think on Hearts, we're starting to loosen up and get away from that."

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