Lead singer of the Court & Spark, M.C. Taylor, said recently that he doesn't like when his band's sound is called "country." But that's not as restrictive a pigeonholing as, say, the "emo-pop" label. Since the birth of the No Depression movement, country music, especially when the "alt" prefix is put on it, has thrown up an ever-widening tent. Wilco, Drive-By Truckers and Lambchop are just a few of the bands that take country's essential ingredients -- twang, acoustic and pedal steel guitars, sad songwriting -- and whip up interesting confections with them.
Interesting things abound on Hearts. Opener "Let's Get High" starts with an atmospheric intro, like the sounds of an orchestra tuning up, before morphing into a straight-ahead Southern rocker. The big, chunky guitar riffs come back on "Capaldi"; both songs would make Neil Young and Crazy Horse proud.
Taylor's come-hither crooning is immediately ingratiating, hitting peaks on loungier tunes such as "We Were All Uptown Rulers" and "High Life," a duet with Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co. Taylor even calls himself a lover man on "Berliners," which features some of his best lyrics: "Talk to me/ You're my lover but no friend" later becomes "Talk is cheap/ And lovers cannot be friends."
The band throws some great instrumentals into the mix as well. "The Oyster Is a Wealthy Beast" makes beautiful use of banjo and cello. "A Milk White Flag" is a pretty piano piece that wouldn't be out of place on a cerebral movie soundtrack. Loops of it come back on "Gatesnakes," a "Revolution No. 9"-esque noise collage. And "Smoke Snigals" is jovial and jaunty, with a silly sounding wah-wah squeezebox entering toward the end. It swings nicely into "Your Mother was the Lightning," which references Dylan's "Buckets of Rain."
When a dozen tracks of intermixed crooners and instrumentals finishes up with "The Ballad of Horselover Fat," featuring L.A. songstress Inara George on backing vocals, the album has winded its intriguing course without a single misstep.
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