Spark and Whisper – Monument
Spark and Whisper is the perfect moniker for these long-running, Bay Area country bluesers as their music contains equals parts cool breeze and nitroglycerin guitar riffage. No, the duo of Anita Sandwina and Velvy Appleton aren’t playing heavy metal or pulverizing psychedelic hard rock, but nonetheless they peddle a sound of dynamics, contrasts and shade where an acoustic dream lick will morph into a full on blues-scorcher moments later.
Monument is the group’s third recording thus far and from my sampling of their prior works; I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s their best to date. Anita and Velvy handle the lion’s share of the songwriting, melodies and guitar compositions while Paul Eastburn and Scott Johnson keep the rhythms agile and hooky. This is the kind of country/blues/folk hybrid that was thought to be extinct for a thousand years but here it is alive and well in Southwestern USA.
These songs are all about hard earned character that only comes from living life and living the music both in the studio and on the road. Each piece is punctuated by fiery blues guitars, hanging garden acoustic beauty, nimble banjo pluckin’, cello, keyboard accompaniment in just the right places and most importantly the stellar vocal interplay between Sandwina and Appleton. The title track ushers things in with vibrant lyrical imagery provided by Anita describing an old piece of ground rich with history, which is one of the band’s best strengths…painting vivid pictures of places and times long since gone. A grooving, shuffle beat straight out of West Texas mushes on a wall of lucid acoustic guitars and buzzing rhythm riffs that construct an instantly memorable opener with truly emotive, impassioned lead vocals from Anita. It gives a great impression right off the bat. “Bottom of the Well” slows the pace to a half-step, two-step strum with stuttered acoustic guitar lines that provide the ultimate foil for Velvy’s smoky, dusky voice and edgy lyrics. Another cool facet is how Anita and Velvy know exactly how to back each other when it comes to the vocal performances. It’s almost like they’re telepathically connected. The percussion is full of stops n’ starts while the bass lines provide a constant shove to the entire action. Added bits of electric lead guitar and finger pluckin’ banjo only further the tune’s uniqueness in a sea of retro pretenders.
“I am yours” flirts with wispy, breezy pop instrumentation where the guitar lines practically spiral off to the sky, only touching down to anchor Sandwina’s gentle, crooning voice. In keeping away from the crap pop country of radio today, the heartfelt instrumentation moves n’ grooves with a perpetual motion bounce that gives the song both brains and brawns to make it stand out as something more. Cello and acoustic guitar walk hand-in-hand with Velvy’s soulful vocals in the calm restraint of “Far from this World.” If The Moody Blues were crossed with Crosby, Stills and Nash you might end up with a song like this and in a world in desperate need of REAL music, it’s an absolute pleasure to hear the progression here. They indulge in hand-clapped Southern gospel on “River Winding” which calls to mind a mixture of Michael Martin Murphy and Allison Krauss (thanks to Sandwina’s bare it all vocal performance). For my money it’s the strongest piece of music on the album and reckons of true mountain music. “A Little Bit More” gets some additional razzle dazzle from Michael Wray’s keyboards which sport a playful 70s swagger with instrumentation to match. Sure, the country/blues influences still come through strong but this number has rock n’ roll written all over it.
The remainder of the record is a hodgepodge of different styles and sounds with country/blues/folk tinges making up the bread n’ butter of the band’s work ethic, but the thing about Spark and Whisper is that they can truly do no wrong no matter what style they choose to play with…the sunny day rock of “California” being a prime example, so there’s no waning in quality as the record comes to its solemn conclusion in the form of “Bless this Mountain.” There’s just so much to dig into on Monument that it will take multiple listen to absorb every sound and that my friends is the mark of a truly good record.