LEAPING ABOVE THE FRAY Sparks the Rescue chart a national course.
Those hardcore fans among you already have much of Eyes to the Sun in your collection. Sparks the Rescue have been selling nine of these 12 songs on a disc they've brought to shows and mailed out from time to time.
Tuesday's release, however, is the first on Fearless Records, home to bands like At the Drive In and the Maine who not only share a musical aesthetic with our local five-piece, but who also represent the next level for which Sparks the Rescue have been preparing themselves for the past two years or so.
"We've learned a lot about being ready for it," says Sparks bassist Ben Briggs, "making sure you actually have fans in every state — real, devoted fans. We've learned a lot about developing the band." And there are seemingly thousands of other bands who are doing the same developing, the same cultivation of fans and toiling in little all-ages clubs (sometimes basements) across the country.
But few of those bands are booked by the William Morris agency. "They keep us smiling when the going gets tough," says guitarist Toby McAllister. "We played a 1200-capacity room with Cartel, and they had a tour bus we got to hang out in it. They'll throw us a show like that every now and again." Like, after the band blow $6000 on their van during a tour.
Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter who your agent is or what label you're on. Only the best of the bands that are circling the country's live-music venues can write and perform the way Sparks the Rescue can, and now, maybe more than ever, songs and talent come before any of the other trappings of success. On their Fearless debut, Sparks show why they've managed to rise above the fray, with huge sing-along choruses they can seemingly write in their sleep, a charismatic frontman in Alex Roy, and enough diversity that they can't simply be written off as just another pop-punk band.
For those of you who've heard the first version of the disc, there's more to like here. There are three new songs — "Pine Tree State," "We Love Like Vampires," and "American Blues" — all of them (like the others) recorded with Jon Wyman, and the whole disc has been remixed by Mark Needham, who's worked with acts as diverse as Better than Ezra, Chris Isaak, Taj Mahal, and the Killers. The result is a giant sound, and the three new tunes are some of the band's best work.
If you've grown up with the band, you know they threw off some of their more aggressive and screamo tendencies in the last two years, and these tunes embrace their more melodic halves with open arms. "We've lightened up," McAllister says. "We got a lot of our angst out." I'll admit I miss that primal craze that infested great songs like "Nurse! Nurse! I'm Losing My Patients," which got your blood boiling while you bobbed your head, but it's hard to argue they weren't always a melodically inclined band that was intrinsically built for radio.
If anything, they exchanged that angst for heartbreak. Eyes is chock full of tunes about love, unrequited and otherwise. The guitars are hard-charging but dial back for the verses in "Pine Tree State," where "you are my north star, when I'm lost and far away." They wrote "American Blues" in the studio with Wyman, who helped them cultivate a clipped vocal delivery from Roy and a great guitar break to precede the second verse: "She sighs, 'You'll be sorry running back to me when Karma comes your way.'"
And "We Love like Vampires" is the best of the bunch, opening with just the vocals and drums, the most icy track here, with keyboards in the background (keyboardist Marty McMorrow left the band amicably) and a chorused backing vocal that is auto-tuned, like robots are doing the backing, toying with the conventions of today's pop music, where Auto-Tune seems to be some kind of prerequisite. The bridge gets all whispery, Roy claiming, "You never fight fair/You're always jumping on my back," and just see if you can't keep from singing along with the call-and-response from the backing vocals.
But there's a blast from the past here, too. For the third time, the band have released "Saco Boys Have No Class," which first appeared on the Hey Mr. Allure EP, then showed up on the Double Blind Records release The Secrets We Can't Keep. While there's something to be said for the original's stripped-down sound, lending to the desperation of the stalker protagonist, this new version is evidence of how much more confident and assured guitarists McAllister and Patrick O'Connell are, how much smarter and more authoritative is drummer Nate Spencer, how much more body Roy has added to his voice.
"This isn't desperate for me," Roy sings, and it's like he's once again singing for the whole band. They've always worked their band like it was their job, but it wasn't out of desperation for success. They just can't imagine doing anything else.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.