Birmingham perseveres as one of the South's most underrated music scenes. It lies nearly equidistant between Athens, GA, Nashville, and Memphis and seems to perfectly split the difference between all three. Athens built the foundation for Southern indie pop, Nashville has its country, while Memphis relies on grit in its rock, blues, and soul. Birmingham happily takes from each in liberal amounts.
The Magic City has persevered as a music scene largely because the band that was supposed to put the city on the map, Verbena, flamed out nearly a decade ago. After releasing their lauded indie debut Souls For Sale, the band signed with a major label which promptly forced them into becoming a Nirvana clone. Needless to say, this plan failed, destroying a promising young band in its prime.
Looking today at how things worked out, maybe it was all for the best. Verbena splintered apart, but A.A. Bondy and Duquette Johnston emerged as stellar solo artists. In breaking up, Verbena also seemed to seed and pollinate the spirits of Birmingham's musicians who coalesced around a strong sense of community, supporting one another. The riches have not gone unnoticed to outside interest such as indie darlings like Conor Oberst who plucked band members like Taylor Hollingsworth. One can check out the fine 2009 compilation The Birmingham Tapes as a sampler of the city's talent.
Perhaps no other band better represents today's Birmingham than Through The Sparks. They originally began to take shape as John Paul Keith left behind Nashville and his original lineup for Stateside only to reform that band in Birmingham using locals. This might have only served as a weigh station for Keith before his ultimate destination in Memphis, but Stateside 2.0 helped build the foundation for Through The Sparks.
After a couple of albums and EPs, Through The Sparks are releasing their latest collection of songs. Almanac (MMX) Year Of Beasts deliberately does not call itself an album since it is a 12 chronologically-ordered singles that were released one per month during 2010. By freeing themselves mentally from the idea of creating a unified album statement, Almanac becomes their loosest, most organic record.
One thing that's clear about Through The Sparks - they are studio rats. They have that old school recording ethic, courtesy of the Beatles and Brian Wilson, in which recording is as much about process as result. Through The Sparks also brings to mind the Band in the way that their interplay reveals their camaraderie. There is obviously a heavy Wilco essence to the band since they share many of the same influences, but Through The Sparks display a confident ease free of the pressures that Tweedy and Co. have to create a masterpiece each time out.
The opening "Devil's Suit" begins with an angular guitars until sweet female voices cover it an aural frosting that smoothes the edges. "The Laughter and Lulls" harkens Sparklehorse but with a sense of hopeful soul. The songs here are an intentional stylisitic grab bag. One can hear Johnny Cash in "40-Watt Lies" while "Bermuda Blades" and "Chisel and Pick" sound like post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys tracks. The sonic diversity of placing deconstructed ideas next to those more fully formed makes for pleasurable listening.
Almanac also marks a point of transition within the band. Through The Sparks get some new blood and energy (Shawn Avery and Grey Watson) around the primary core of Jody Nelson, James Brangle, and Greg Slamen . Though a closet clearing exercise in theory, this album both challenges and settles the new lineup, showing promise ahead.
Almanac (MMX) Year Of Beasts reveals itself to be as fun to listen to as it clearly was for Through The Sparks to make. Where Verbena's path shot like a rocket before exploding and fizzling out, Through The Sparks thankfully keep marching on, making great music song by song.
- Jim Markel
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