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"I can't remember the last time I listened to a country record."
For most people, that would be a pretty innocuous statement. But for someone who plays in a band that has been shoehorned into the alt-country pigeonhole for the past five years, it's almost antagonistic. M.C. Taylor of the Court and Spark must be feeling kind of ornery -- or at least as ornery as one can feel at nine-thirty on a Sunday morning. Speaking from the house in San Francisco that he splits with fellow C&S guitarist Scott Hirsch, Taylor sounds as sleepy-eyed and bedhead-stricken as the songs he sings. "I think since we're always fighting this country tag" he continues through a fog of yawns, "I really stopped being into country rock per se, that whole cult of Gram Parsons."
Fighting words, for sure. Gram Parsons, the nearly mythic hero of the International Submarine Band, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, overdosed in 1973 at the age of 26 after two solo albums that solidified his place as the once and future king of all that is country rock. At least that's the party line; it's been argued that guys like Gene Clark and Townes Van Zandt were equally as seminal -- they just weren't lucky enough to have had their heroin-bloated cadavers burned in the middle of the California desert and hence ushered into the halls of alt-country Valhalla.
" like Gene Clark a lot more than I do Gram Parsons," admits Taylor, verging on outright heresy. (Clark, the original frontman of the Byrds, left the group in 1966 for a lengthy solo career that was as brilliant as it was ignored.) " People get so hung up on Gram Parsons. He's not thatgood. I like that stuff, but I don't really ever listen to it anymore. It's our feeling that there's a lot of richer music, especially from the '60s and '70s, to draw from."
Accordingly, the Court and Spark's newest release, Double Roses, has its roots sunk firmly in the soil of decades past. An eight-song mini-album thrown together almost as an afterthought, it may be the act's best work yet. " The new EP was made all by ourselves at home," says Hirsch, whose supple, soulful lead guitar work is as commanding as Taylor's vocals. "It's mostly acoustic. The whole idea of it was for it to be kind of a freeing experiment; we just wanted to record in our own time without the confines of a studio -- just coming home and hanging around and making music."
Although the home recordings were originally intended as mere demos for the upcoming full-length Witch Season, the group was so pleased with them that the players (including drummer James Kim, bassist Dan Carr and pedal-steel guitarist Tom Heyman) decided to package it for sale on its current tour. Featuring covers by Fred Neil and John Fahey, Double Roses is immersed in the heritage of vintage songcraft. " Take a Rest, Driver" could be a long lost Harry Nilsson track, and the whole disc swims in the rarefied, space-cowboy vibe first exuded by the Byrds in their masterpieces The Notorious Byrd Brothersand Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde. Indeed, the cut " Titov Sang the Blues" is an elegy immortalizing Gherman Titov, the Russian cosmonaut who became the second man in space after initially being passed over in favor of Yuri Gagarin. " You could not be the first cosmonaut in space," twangs Taylor amid a storm of steel strings and ionospheric vibrato. " Your poetry rings true/There was no match for Gagarin's face."
Taylor's typically cryptic lyrics came under scrutiny a couple of years ago by -- oddly enough -- a member of the Byrds. Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram) was the longest-running player in the legendary group besides founder Roger McGuinn, and he also served time in the Flying Burrito Brothers. Taylor sent Parsons an e-mail after finding out that the venerable guitarist lived only three hours from San Francisco. " I told him that I was in a band and that we were making a record and wanted him to play on it," recalls Taylor. " One thing it hinged on was the lyrics; he really wanted to see them before he'd agree to play with us. It turned out he was a pretty Christian guy. I sent him all my lyrics, but I guess there was nothing in there that was too blasphemous.
"Actually," Taylor says, chuckling, "he told me he couldn't even understand them."
The resultant album, 2001's Bless You, was a huge leap forward for the Court and Spark. The band's first record, Ventura White, was certainly promising, but Taylor's voice had grown since then -- widening, deepening, eroding its craggier edges like a river over the course of centuries. On the song "Fireworks," he drowsily yodels the lines "All the matches that you lit upon the stove/Are leaving sulfur trails," as Parson's acoustic guitar peals and sparkles around him like struck glass. During solos, Hirsch plucks high notes as if they were daisies; elsewhere, he brushes his strings like a lover's hair. Kim's hissing cymbals in the beginning of "To See the Fires" are loose wiper blades slithering across a rain-swept windshield. Through it all, the group's country-hued sunset succumbs to an almost folky moonlight.
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