Grievous Angels

The Court and Spark might be the Bay Area's best new country band, if only it played country music

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Gram Parsons got a lot of attention for doing immense amounts of drugs and being cremated by amateurs in Joshua Tree National Monument. He also wrote some of the nicest country songs to come down the pike in a long time.

Except Gram Parsons never played country music. He played what he called "cosmic American music," which was, well, country, but with rock and R&B twists that made it innovative and interesting and dismally unmarketable.

Parsons died of a drug overdose in 1974. Twenty-six years later, a surprisingly large number of bands are struggling to be named heir to Parson's throne. San Francisco's best shot may be the Court and Spark, a band that has already mastered the first step to underground country stardom.

The Court and Spark: Musical polyglots.
Dianne Jones
The Court and Spark: Musical polyglots.

Details

Performs on Saturday, Aug. 12, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10; call 885-0750.
Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell (at Polk), S.F.

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It doesn't play country music.

Ask M.C. Taylor, the Court and Spark's singer and rhythm guitarist, what it is exactly that the band is doing, and he'll be happy to tell you. Sort of.

"Umm ... well ...," he stammers, eventually giving up and looking to drummer James Kim for help.

"Deep layered country," Kim says tentatively.

Taylor looks at him, slightly pained.

"There's not one word for it really," Taylor finally concludes. "If I'm talking to my grandma, I'd just say it's country music. But we don't consider ourselves a country band. We probably listen to electronic or dub music as much as country."

The Court and Spark's musical identity crisis puts the band in good company. There's the Gram Parsons link, for one, but there's also the growing number of File Under ? groups that have more in common with Ry Cooder and his Paris, Texas than Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Bands like Lullaby for the Working Class, Lambchop, and Souled American -- bands that can speak country, but that, ultimately, are polyglots, equally conversant in a number of genres.

Like many of its contemporaries, the Court and Spark came to its sound from the seemingly far-away world of punk rock. Lead guitarist Scott Hirsch, Taylor, and current bassist Joe Rogers met at UC Santa Barbara, where they played together in the noisy post-rock group Exignota. The band broke up at graduation in 1997, and Hirsch and fellow Santa Barbara musician Kim moved to San Francisco. Taylor followed eight months later. The three found a bassist, and the Court and Spark was born.

"We wanted to do something that was broad," recalls Kim of the band's early ambitions. "Mike was listening to a lot of country-type stuff. And the Steely Dan stuff. He was really into that, and we were kind like, "What is this?' He felt alone in that Steely Dan world."

But by January 1999, the band members had all 1) embraced Steely Dan, the Band, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, and Kim Hazlewood, and 2) written enough originals for a trip to the studio. Working at Division Hi-Fi was a little overwhelming for guys in their early 20s whose previous recordings had involved eight tracks and a couple of microphones. The possibilities opened by a real studio were intimidating, to say nothing of the staff.

"They completely took us under their wing, but there were some times when it was pretty fucking harsh," says Taylor, recalling the tough love administered by producers/engineers Scott Solter and Desmond Shae. "We'd have to leave the studio and go, "Oh man ... I just got worked.'"

The time spent at Division Hi-Fi helped tighten the Court and Spark's playing while expanding the band's sound. "Recording the album pointed us in a certain direction," says Taylor. "We were able to do things on the record that we hadn't thought of doing yet. "

The album was recorded in spurts over five months, from January to May 1999. The resulting eight-song CD, Ventura Whites, crackles and hums with the electricity of a band catching up to its own ideas. A tour through the dark outskirts of the rural imagination, the album has the beautiful, doomed timbre of Palace or the Scud Mountain Boys, with an openness that neither can match. Some of that expansiveness has to do with Taylor's lyrics. His tales of God, ghosts, and human failure ring with the conviction of a hymnal; delivered with a mannered twang that works best when set on low, the stories unravel in fragments, chilling and vague.

Like Taylor's turns of phrase, the most stunning parts of Ventura Whites are often the smallest: a graceful flutter of vocal harmony from Wendy Allen (a guest when the album was recorded and now a full-time member); a melting chord from Hirsch's Hammond B-3 organ, or sepia fireworks from his slide guitar. Kim's drumming paces the perimeter of it all, his crashes and fills counting out the seconds before the dream dissolves.

With all the expert help in the studio, the band still benefited from some happy accidents during the recording process. One of the album's most haunting tracks -- the duet for piano and children's voices that became the title track -- was captured by chance at an elementary school where Taylor was working. "There was always a student piano in those old schools that I would play during lunchtime and stuff. These little girls were in the classroom -- it was PE time but they didn't want to go outside and play. I just used a little tape recorder and that just happened to come out. The girls say some pretty strange things."

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