Review Summary: This quite possibly might end up as the indie release of the year.
For my money, the advent of the internet is just about the best thing that could have happened to most obscure bands, like, say, a Southern Californian three-piece who don’t even have a Wikipedia entry. The oversaturation of the market, however, means it’s hard to stand out, unless you’re one of the chosen few that Pitchfork decides to sponsor. Sometimes I figure having a voice as smooth as Yellow Red Sparks lead vocalist Joshua Hanson, perhaps most reminiscent of Colin Meloy, and a band sound as clean as on Yellow Red Sparks is actually detrimental in the race to be noticed. Luckily for us (and perhaps unluckily for the band's wallets), Hanson, despite his theatrical household, has no interest in adding gimmicks, instead choosing to lament inspired tunes about a lost love. As it just so would happen, this is just about the only hook the album needs.
Breaking no new boundaries, Yellow Red Sparks contains a style of indie rock that always feels familiar yet never feels derivative. Perhaps it’s the almost waltzy opening chords of ‘My Machine Gun’ in the vein of Elliott Smith or the The Flaming Lips-esque verses of ‘Happiness Comes in a Box,’ but there’s an immediately obvious homage paid to the greats of the genre. But Yellow Red Sparks always impresses their mark on the album. It’d be easy to credit the Americana and quirky indie influence on the same backstage guys responsible for the works of The Gaslight Anthem and The Shins, but they already deserve enough credit for the pristine and crisp but never overdone production. From a sweeping filmlike orchestra in ‘A Play to End All Plays’ to the background scattering of piano and cello throughout the album, there is always the precise environment for Hanson to hammer in his passionate yarns of heartache and loss. But to describe the music as anything more than the backdrop to Hanson’s performance, beautiful and lush and flawless though it may be, would be a crime to Yellow Red Sparks.
At its core, Yellow Red Sparks is nothing more than Hanson’s perspective on a failed relationship, but it’s in the implementation here that Hanson absolutely captivates. His stories take different angles in heartbreak, from sarcastic bitterness of opener ‘Buy Me Honey’ to the reflective melancholy of ‘Happiness Comes in a Box,’ each sentiment cuttingly visceral and precisely transcribed. The conflicted thoughts of Hanson throughout the album, wavering in his indignation, his moments of firmness lasting just long enough to call it firmness, certainly add plausibility to his sentiments. Feelings don’t just drop, after all, so it seems obvious that bouts of melancholy, bitterness, and nostalgia would all be an accurate representation of his broken relationship. As an example ‘To Love and To Loathe’ is an immediately obvious candidate here, with Hanson unable to decide just how to feel about his former beau. Hanson's convoluted metaphors, which probably are impossible for anyone besides him to decode, comprise the mysterious stories, with the occasional one-liner a metaphorical bone for the listener to feign understanding and to connect with their own meaning. “That I never knew love, I never knew love/ Would be so unfair/ While this sad priest is counting grievances for me” he sings on the title track. Well I certainly get the first part, but what on Earth that second line means I don’t know, but I’m sure in the right scenario I could bullshit something!
But not knowing the answers is exactly the point. Hanson transcribes his moments of understanding as poignantly and cryptically as the best of them, but then promptly undoes them on the next song. His pieces of wisdom aren't hollow so much as flawed, because despite his best efforts, all his wisdom is intrinsically parochial, defined only by his life experiences. This understanding implicitly exists in every verse and is what lends the album's lyricism its power. “And if I love you, why do I loathe you?” he asks on ‘To Love and To Loathe,’ and for once, he can't even bullshit an answer. It’s refreshing to hear someone asking the big questions as opposed to simple moping or screaming. But what ultimately makes this album stand out is its implication that we might never know the answer, or that there might not even exist an answer, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn't try finding it anyways. These are the ideas that put Yellow Red Sparks on a different level from countless other indie hopefuls.
‘Hope on a Rope’ closes the album with Hanson struggling to understand the role of his broken heart’s perpetrator in his new life, and to understand his feelings for her. He ends with the declaration “I love you more than you should know…HOPE,” seemingly resolute in whatever he’s hoping for, but the guitar exits with a minor cadence. His resolve potentially dissolves, leaving the listener hanging on the outcome, an example of the adept and precise instrumentation keeping the themes of the album intact. But while the perfectly executed indie/folk are what draw you in and let you out, it’s the questions Hanson asks that will keep you listening.
I disagree about the 4.5 to the 5.0 thing. Personally, for me, an all-positive review is a 4.0+. The extent of the hyperbole is what determines whether it's just a 4.0, a 4.5, or a 5.0. Incidentally, if I were staff, this would be a 4.4. And before I get misquoted, I'd just add that obviously a 4.0 review can point out faults, but for me it's the threshold where you can have just about only positives in your review and still justify your score.
But consider the lack of hyperbole a fault? Or maybe that they're just not THAT distinctive? I don't know but this isn't a 5, though I like it quite a lot.
I'm listening now and enjoying it quite a bit. Sounds a tad like Yellowcard if they went indie instead of pop-punk.
And I see what you're saying, I just like to balance even my very positive reviews with some criticism. Saying they don't do anything particularly distinctive IS a critique. It doesn't make the album worse necessarily, but it stops it from achieving 5 status.
"I'm listening now and enjoying it quite a bit. Sounds a tad like Yellowcard if they went indie instead of pop-punk."
Definitely didn't hear that. I'll look for it next time I'm listening to this (which will probably be tomorrow).
And haha, fair enough. Different perspectives on the rating system. Most of my 4.5s are me worrying I actually didn't defend it enough to be worthy of a 4.5... I mean a 4.5 is spectacular. For me, there just isn't enough space to be so comprehensive as to get to the minutia that separates a 4.5 from a 5 (because really, it can be the smallest thing)
I think you have to worry less about a 4.5, and more about justifying any 5s you give. Anyway, thanks for letting me know about this band. Would you mind looking at the review I just submitted on Mother Mother's, "The Sticks?" I always love feedback from people who will actually engage me directly on this site.
True, but 5s should be the easiest reviews to write anyways.
And no problem, glad you checked them out! I'll look at your review now. I'll probably give one round of feedback and head to bed though. 8 AM class tomorrow and I'm until 1:30 on Sputnik, ha.
btw don't be too intimidated here on Sputnik. You seem like a cool guy, so I'm sure you'll get along fine. Especially if you've been lurking and sorta get the Sputnik culture. but alright I'm off to your review
Nice, it's a pretty nifty record I'd say. I'm not quite sure if it's your taste but there's no harm in listening to a track or two.
"I dug "Happiness comes in a box", it's a very beautiful song."
A bit of a late response here. It's definitely one of my favorites on this record, but I wouldn't say the rest of the album is any worse quality. I recommend a listen to the rest of the album if you're digging that track.
"nah 818. I'm just partial to long drives."
Oh, is that so? That you probably attend more shows in OC than me is probably a sad reflection on me. You should definitely check this out, though. I'm not sure you'd be singing its praises as highly as I do, but I could see you 3.5-4.0ing this.
I haven't heard Travis, so I can't speak to that. Beyond the whole accessible indie sound, I don't see too much Coldplay in here either. But it's been a long, long time when I gave Coldplay a listen, particularly their older stuff.
There is a bit of a twang, agreed. I'm not sure what it is, but the verses of Happiness Comes in a Box gives me the biggest Flaming Lips vibe ever.