Read on and discover something wonderful.
Read on and discover something wonderful.
This month’s Bright Sparks nomination is a little different. For starters, the band in question released this EP in the US last summer, so it’s not exactly new, but after the disc arrived at the shed (thanks to Absolutely Kosher records) I asked people if they’d ever heard of the band. Nobody had. I asked my friends and acquaintances in the UK and the US if they’d heard of the band and again, nobody had. That, dear readers, is a crying shame. Every now and again something drops through the shed’s letterbox that makes us all stand up and say, "This is fantastic!" and this EP is one of them. Beautifully crafted, the music itself is simply stunning and beautiful and the artwork is gorgeous too. Trust me when I tell you that, if you’re looking for something new that could make this summer feel a little more special, then The Court and Spark just might do it for you. Read on and discover something wonderful.
I used to love the summer when I was a kid. The lower end of the Wear Valley, in the Western part of County Durham, England, is a beautiful place. The small village that I grew up in, Howden-le-Wear, is banked on two sides by steep hills and rolling farmland stretches for miles around it, in all directions. At the top of our street, only three doors and a patch of wasteland away from our front door was the main road, something that my parents always warned me about when I was young. "You can go out to play if you want, but don’t play near the main road." Normally restrictions like that will result in the kid in question immediately running out into the main road to play chicken with a Vauxhall Astra, just because it was something their parents told them not to do, but the main road became the border of my world and it never once bothered me because, at the other end of our street was a graveyard (always a cool place to play) and next to that, on one side, was a local schoolyard and on the other a place we used to call ‘the Battery,’ a large expanse of public grassland (far too large to call a village green), so I always had plenty of places to muck around on. There was also, just over the school yard fence, a small wood, which was great for playing ‘armies’ in.
No, when I was a child, crossing the main road was never an option, because it didn’t need to be, and even as I grew into my teenage years I could still, for the majority of times, be found in those same places. Apart from the summer that is, when our world became a little bit bigger.
Running down the side of the graveyard and the Battery was ‘the lane,’ a dirt-track road that sliced its way through some local farmland, all the way down to a place called Junction, a couple of miles away. Junction was aptly named because it is, basically, a row of houses built beside a railway junction. The railway in question is now abandoned, but it used to carry cement, coal and other heavy loads from the upper parts of Wear Valley down to Witton Park and beyond. During the summer a bunch of us would, often daily, walk or ride or bikes down the lane, all the way to Junction, where we would turn left and follow the railway track for half a mile or so until we came to the viaduct and, more importantly, the river.
The River Wear was, perhaps, my favourite place to play of all and I have spent many an hour swimming around in it’s brown, chocolate coloured waters. We’d always start off underneath the viaduct, by the ford and on some days that place would be enough for us, but on the days when we wanted to swim in deep water, or were feeling more adventurous, we’d set off upstream from there and into the local Nature Reserve. A half hour walk through bushes, branches and bracken would lead us to our goal, a section of the river where the rocks on the banks become large and flat and the water itself suddenly becomes very deep. Miles away from anywhere, it was perfect for a bunch of lads and lasses to enjoy themselves without being disturbed. In other words, it was a secret, fabulous place that only we knew about. (Kids and families from all around the area would often make their way to the ford, but nobody else, as far as I’m aware, ever made the journey further upstream (probably because of the fences, woodland and marshland that you had to cross to get there). This section of the river was our spot and is still, quite possibly, my favourite part of the area itself, as it holds so many good memories for me.
The large rocks on the bank made for good dive points, but you had to be careful because the water wasn’t that deep. If you swam out to the far bank from where we approached the river, however, the water dropped as much as ten feet and, as you swam across, suddenly you hit a large rock face, like a small cliff face underwater that you could clamber on to. Standing on the submerged rocks, the water was only ankle deep, but you could dive off it into the deep, dark brown water and as such this area became known as the ‘dive pool.’ The far bank was home to some big, sturdy trees and their branches stretched out over the river, providing ample shade in which to hide from the sun and, more importantly, good places to make Tarzan swings.
Now then, if you don’t know what a Tarzan swing is, (and you really should) then I’ll explain. Basically a Tarzan swing is a piece of rope tied to a tree branch at one end and with an old car tyre or plank of wood tied to the other end. You grab hold of the rope and stand (or sit) on the tyre or plank and swing from it. Just like your average rope swing, you’ll be thinking, but no, this is a Tarzan swing. Tarzan swings are more exciting than your average rope swing, because they add an element of danger to the mix.
Tarzan swings are rope swings that are made in places that there really shouldn’t be rope swings. They’ll be found on the sides of steep hills or, as is the case here, over riverbanks. We once built one in Howden Park that was, quite possibly, the most dangerous swing ever created. It was tied to a large tree and hung out over a steep bank. You swung from the top of the bank out to a point where the drop was a good thirty feet. If you jumped off (which is always the point of a Tarzan swing, to jump and survive) you had to make sure that you wouldn’t hurt yourself. First thing to avoid was the stone staircase that ran diagonally down the hill, if you missed those you had to try and land on the small path, only four feet wide at the bottom of the hill. If you overshot the path you would either hit a large tree or become entangled in a barbed wire fence. How none of us died doing that I have no idea? Although that swing was responsible for more than its fair share of broken ankles and wrists, it has to be said.
The Tarzan swing that hung out over the dive pool was a special one. Although not quite as dangerous as the one in Howden Park, you still had to make sure that, if you jumped off, you managed to clear the diving rocks (remember the water was only ankle deep there) and land in the deep part. It was a great swing, made with thick blue rope we found one day whilst walking down the lane. A large branch was attached to it at first, but we found an old tyre at one point and so that was attached to the bottom because it was easier to have two people swing on it at once then. I find it amazing that nobody ever hurt themselves on that swing and thank goodness for it too, because if we’d have broken an ankle or a leg there then we really would have been in trouble. We were miles away from home, with no mobile phones in those days, and it would have been a long and painful trip home with a broken limb I can tell you.
We spent hours there every day, just passing time and messing around, often returning home sunburnt to a crisp, exhausted and famished. We’d get home, eat some food, have a shower and then go to bed, hoping the weather would stay hot so that we could do it all again the next day. If I’m ever feeling down, I often try to think of the dive pool. It’s a place that has provided handfulls of good memories, but not a single bad one. I can remember the first time I dared jump from the Tarzan swing. I can remember Paul Burdess smashing his cast. He’d broken his left wrist somehow (probably by jumping off the Tarzy in Howden park) and had it encased in plaster. In a bid to keep it dry his arm was wrapped in a plastic carrier bag and tied with elastic bands, but it was doing his head in to keep it above water so he just smashed the cast on the rocks and threw it away. His wrist hurt so much the poor lad was in agony, but at least he could swim properly. He was taken to hospital again that night to get it re-plastered. The dive pool was also the place that a girl first touched me down there and I’ll never forget that moment.
Ultimately the dive pool is a place that reminds me of summer. I think of bright, clear blue skies and scorching sunshine. I think of the river itself and its sounds, calm and gentle in places but fierce and rapid in others. (There was a cool part where the river bed was made of large, slab like rocks and the river itself flowed fast over them, creating a current strong enough that, if you sat down and lifted your feet up, it would carry you along for a good couple of hundred feet, like a water slide.) But most of all, I remember laughter. I don’t think I ever argued with anybody in that place, although I’m sure I’ve probably just forgotten, as all I can remember about the dive pool is of feeling very alive, very free and very, very happy.
But what the hell has all this got to do with the Dead Diamond River EP from The Court and Spark I can hear you ask? Well, after I took the cd out of its rather beautiful cover and pressed play I was instantly transported back to the dive pool. Invercargill begins with some acoustic guitars that strum up a gentle tempo and then start picking out sharp, precise little notes along the way, rather like the river does when it meets some sharp rocks and changes its appearance. The low droning noises that accompany the guitars (provided, I think, by a vibraphone) feel as pleasant to your ears as a cool breeze does to your face on a hot day.
The river picks up speed a little for Lucia, but it’s just like that current I mentioned earlier, where it sweeps you up off your feet and carries you downstream through some truly beautiful scenery. The acoustic guitars skip along at a steady rate and they’re joined by a wonderful pedal steel guitar, which seems to swoop in and out rather gracefully, like a bird flying overhead. Backing the guitars up are a very sedate and unobtrusive accordion and some rather wonderful handclaps towards the end. It’s also the first opportunity we get to hear some vocals and MC Taylor has a voice that’s so calm and gentle that it will relax you into submission immediately. His vocals provide the cool breeze that keeps the whole thing tolerable. The music creates a warm, summery atmosphere, but the breeze of the vocals makes things truly magical.
That magic continues through Bar The Door, Davy and First Light at Avalon. The harmonies on Bar the Door, Davy between MC Taylor and Linda Thompson (of Richard and Linda fame, no less) are almost too beautiful to describe, so I won’t bother, and there’s some wonderful Neil Young style harmonica playing in the middle. First Night at Avalon, whilst beginning with the sound of a cold wind (or is it the ocean?), suddenly changes into a pleasant summer afternoon, complete with more of those skipping acoustic guitars and some swooping pedal steel guitar. If there was a musical definition of the word happy, then this would be it. It brings to mind all those aspects of nature that made those summers I spent by the river so much fun. Hallelujah II rounds things off in much the same way. A slow gentle guitar with some calming vocals backed by some playful percussion and that beautiful pedal steel once again.
Dead Diamond River is truly a beautiful piece of work from start to finish. It’s been created by a bunch of guys from Northern California, who’ve probably been influenced by the Pacific Coastline rather than the back woods of County Durham, so the link between everything that I’ve been talking about and the music itself is rather flimsy to say the least, but the atmosphere it creates is very special. The Court and Spark may have spent most of their time hanging out in San Francisco or bumming it about on the beaches, but I haven’t. I spent my summers on the banks of the River Wear and it’s those happy memories that this record has awakened in me. If you’ve ever swam in a river with friends. If you’ve ever clambered over rocks and fallen trees in search of adventure. If you’ve ever jumped off a Tarzy. If you can remember a summer of laughter and joy, then take a listen to this and remind yourself of it.
Return to a world of charm and innocence. Return to a world of wonder. Dead Diamond River is a must buy.
Words : Damian Leslie