Emily Sparks

What Could Not Be Buried (Wishing Tree)

If there's one thing living in Oakland has made clear, it's that God invented car stereos in a tribute to Mary J. Blige. To hear "No More Drama" booming out of a crappy Continental on a Saturday at dusk is to know that his will is done, and all is right in the heavenly firmament.

But Emily Sparks' debut, What Could Not Be Buried, suggests that the Big Guy may have had more than one singer in mind when he brought the first Blaupunkt into being. Unlike Blige's extroverted trunk-thumping, though, Sparks' sound is built for the car stereo's quiet, reflective mood -- the somatically cozy concerts-for-one that are only possible when music is experienced in the bubble of transit.

Sparks has a gentle touch on the acoustic guitar, favoring simple finger-picked melodies accompanied by her whispery, secret-sharing vocals. If it weren't for the slight scuff on her voice -- and the jauntier tilt on several of her songs -- the sound would be indistinguishable from that of Boston singer/songwriter Mary Lou Lord.

However emulative her style, Sparks has a charm that's all but irresistible. What Could Not Be Buried's delicious tone is set by the opening track, "Just as Well" -- a nostalgic, sweet sigh with lines like "Strange how someone you once loved/ Can become just another person you once knew."

This theme of outgrown love carries throughout the album, entwining with thoughts on getting older ("I, Aquarius"), the odd aptness of springtime breakups ("Spring"), and the tattering effect distance can have on friendships ("Downtown Cafe"). The CD is not all post-collegiate gloom and doom, however; Sparks also throws a few lighthearted curveballs at the listener. "Midnight Rendezvous" is a goofy come-on, and "The Demons" sounds like a giggly lullaby for a friend who has taken too much acid.

Even at her silliest, though, Sparks infuses her songs with a kind of lonely warmth that makes them ideal companions for late-night driving. Built on the intimate scale of human experience, What Could Not Be Buried serves as a beautiful reminder that life is a bittersweet transition from Here to There, in which the most dire things get lost in the rearview distance, along with the most dear.

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