Spark and Whisper – Monument
Monument, the third album from the Northern California based folk duo Spark and Whisper, consisting of Anita Sandwina & Velvy Appleton, solidifies their status among the best songwriting and performing partnerships working today. It represents a further flowering of a creative spirit that first emerged. The eleven song collection has a rare depth of quality extending far beyond rote acoustic singer/songwriter fare. Monument has outstanding clarity highlighting the duo’s multi-instrumental talents while also presenting the tracks with startling clarity. This is an all-around excellent package aiming to entertain and illuminate alike. This isn’t strictly a folk outing though, despite whatever classification you might find it lumped under. It is certainly informed by traditional music, but there’s a rock and roll spirit burning just beneath the surface of some songs.
Few are better examples of that than the title song. It opens the album with a classic slow build, transforming from an emphatic folk number into a muscular, near-anthemic song. Sandwina’s voice dominates, but Appleton enters at crucial points to lend well-timed backing vocals. The lyrics might initially strike some listeners as surprisingly literal, but it’s stunning how the string of inexplicably specific details adds up to something much greater than it first seems. Spark and Whisper marry the folk style with an understated rock and roll attitude on the song “Bottom of the Well”. Appleton takes over lead vocals for this song and he has an innate talent for stressing the vocal melody’s percussive aspects in a very pleasing way. Unlike the opener, however, this song keeps its feet firmly planted in acoustic territory throughout. “Far From This World” is another Appleton vocal and a much moodier piece, musically and lyrically, than any of the previous songs. The guitar figure has a slightly riffy quality, but melody and tasteful piano lines help temper its edge. The duo’s lyrical content remains high throughout the album’s first half and they are well served by their collaborating musicians. There’s a biting electric guitar solo near the song’s end that succeeds because its equal parts gritty and still tailors itself to the song’s melodic strengths.
There’s a clipped country influence on “Little Bit More” that’s difficult to ignore. The stuttering electric guitar recalls J.J. Cale some, but there’s nothing on Monument that ever risks outright imitation. Appleton’s vocals, once again, guide the way, but Sandwina contributes much with her unobtrusive backing vocals. “The Circle” might be completely in keeping, sonically and thematically, with Spark and Whisper’s other songs, but some of the minimalism defining “Little Bit More” continues here and there’s a surprisingly orchestrated quality to the arrangement solidifying the song’s structure without ever calling too much attention to it. Monument’s final track helps the album form a perfect circle. “Bless This Monument” obviously bookends the album for a good reason, but moreover, it’s a fine song. Spark and Whisper, for a final time, builds up a song from rather stark beginnings into rousing, heart-tugging theatrics without ever straining for effect. It serves as a last reminder of the album’s core strength – its relaxed confidence. Nothing feels written or plotted out, really, and the naturalness of the song performances will impress even the more jaded of music devotees.
9 out of 10 stars.