The initial acoustic patterns, well-bunkered bass lines and Appalachian blues guitars that open the title track from Spark and Whisper’s third disc Monument might have you think this act hails from south of the Mason Dixon. Truth be told, Spark and Whisper are from California but they wear their blues/folk/country influences so well that they could have fooled me. In the end, it doesn’t matter where you come from or what you play, just simply…can you play it well? In the case defense of Spark and Whisper, yes, this duo turned quartet can play it well and then some.
This is an album all about riff and groove. It doesn’t matter that the riffing is half acoustic (guitar, banjo, Mandolin) and half electric; this band really gives the brain a workout across their latest album Monument’s eleven intricate tracks. If you’re looking for a rock-themed album with pastoral touches, you’ll get what you bargained for but you can throw formula out the window. The dream team of Anita Sandwina and Velvy Appleton adhere to no formats and no rules. One minute they’ll shake you up with a folk strum train-wrecked into a heavy blues rocker like the opener “Monument” and then they’ll go down country roads to cull some rich bluegrass in “River Winding” with its bent guitar notes, handclaps and heavily drawled vocals. There’s simply no comparing one track to the next and there’s very little clutter to be found on a record that’s adventurous enough to travel every corner of the map.
Hydra-headed, dual vocals are the name of the game here as Anita and Velvy switch between solo parts, duets and zoned in harmonies. Velvy shines bright on the foot-stomping, wood-breaking kicker “Bottom of the Well” where an ancient acoustic guitar dives headlong into some downhome southern blues that burns hotter than an August sun. And Anita’s majestic, mystical presence on the svelte “I am yours” nearly induces tears with her plaintive yet stretching croon that eventually signals the track to open up into some heftier, harder, blues rock n’ roll. They tackle straight rock n’ roll flair balanced out by a powerhouse rhythm section on “A Little Bit More” and “Mojo” then take a hard swerve into nearly modern country rock with the boppy, infectious “California.” The thing about Spark and Whisper is that even when their minds lean towards a pop tune, they still keep things grittier than Garth Brooks, Toby Keith and other artists passed off for country in this day and age. Here you get heartfelt vocals, a helluva lot of instrumental prowess combining banjo, mandolin, acoustic and electric guitar and a rhythm section that favors the throttle instead of the brakes. The softly-picked “Around Again” is also a standout with heavy use of the cello and wraparound acoustic guitar textures that never stop or end; running throughout the entire track.
To sum it up, Monument is a versatile piece of work with feelings both aggressive and rockin’ to emblazoned passion that indicates a band that can write from any ideal or perspective that comes to them. You’ll stop by for the monolithic vocal work but you’ll stay by the time you find out that this entire band kicks ass as musicians. This is a great piece of work and strong enough to renew anybody’s faith in what’s left of country music.