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Yellow Red Sparks

Yellow Red Sparks

[ORG Music / Warner; 2013]

By ; May 29, 2013 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

Idaho native and Yellow Red Sparks lead singer Joshua Hanson can proudly boast that he wrote one of the best songs of 2012. It was recently announced that Hanson took the grand prize from the International Songwriting Competition, which picks the best of the best from over 20,000 tracks as judged by numerous big names, including Tom Waits, The Cure’s Robert Smith, jazz legend McCoy Tyner, and …Selena Gomez. Needless to say, Hanson was left incredulous, and rightfully so: For most it would be enough to just know that the names listed above just listened to your track. But for them to decide that yours is the best is enough to leave a mark on a songwriter forever.

The song in question is “Monsters With Misdemeanours,” the centrepiece to the self-titled album from Yellow Red Sparks. At first, it’s not a particularly assuming track, with acoustic jangles and scuffing and brushing drums. But allow it to play on and it opens itself up rather beautifully, with strings, reassuring sighs of brass, and some pleasantly executed backing vocals. As an instrumental it would likely still perk your ears, but with Hanson’s earnest vocals overlaying the mix, it all comes together. The song might not change your life, but it’s hard to come out of it and not agree that it’s astutely put together while retaining an appeal that will extend to a wide audience.

But it’s not all Yellow Red Sparks has to offer. Another competitor for Hanson’s best song follows “Monsters,” in the form of “A Play To End All Plays” which lives up to its title and delivers a theatrical show of its own. Complete with a choir, dramatic violins, and an emotional build constructed around the word “pain,” it’s just as likely to stir an emotion or two within. “A Play To End All Plays” also serves as one of the two examples of the kind of Yellow Red Sparks songs that catch the attention of the listener best: the loud kind. While Hanson’s vocals do occasionally hit on gentleness, they never reduce to something near a whisper; its fortitude acts as the impetus for the songs here. When a storm is brewing in the music, however, Hanson sweeps himself up with it quickly, as evidenced with his coolly deranged performance on “A Play To End All plays” and the fiery “My Machine Gun.”

What the album lacks then is more of these moments; instead we’re left with tracks that aren’t quite as wonderful arranged as “Monsters” or as impacting as “A Play To End All Plays” or “My Machine Gun.” Yellow Red Sparks owes the majority of its runtime to tracks that run off an acoustic jangle and build from there. While it’s hard to accuse any of these tracks here of being bad, some don’t stick in the head as well as others, such “Happiness Comes in A Box” or the emptily brooding “A Buffalo,” while one or two sound awkward similar upon first glance (“Happiness Comes In A Box” and “Sense And Sensibility”).

Hanson’s lyrics don’t always play well either. He directs most of his words to what sounds like past loves and the trails that he’s faced, and while he might weave an earworm or two that will burrow its way in your head (the lazy Sunday melody of “To Love And Loathe,” the eager opening line of “Buy Me Honey”), more often than not he comes off a few steps short of being profound. While love is exceptionally easy to pick up on as theme, there’s a strangely open debasing of religion, which presents itself clearest and most unexpectedly during the final track “Hope On A Rope” where Hanson casually utters, “We’ll walk around for miles exposing those pedophiles/ Throw them back in church where they belong.” It’s his delivery that makes him a likeable narrator during the album, though, as he remains upbeat, even when he’s verging on darker material. His earnestness might be a little overbearing for some, bringing to mind unfortunate memories of Marcus Mumford singing like he’s getting paid for the fullness of his breath, but Hanson manages to stay on the side of pleasing honesty.

While the acclaim “Monsters With Misdemeanours” is likely to get won’t be damaging for the band’s profile (it has resulted in a good few TV appearances for the band), it fortunately shouldn’t distract from the rest of Yellow Red Sparks. Listeners who find the album because of the prize-winning song will find songs just as lovely here (the preceding track “Mr. Wonderful” is a good candidate – and funnily enough is exactly the same length as “Monsters”) if not be caught quicker by those more rambunctious numbers. It’s a good start for the band, and all this publicity of the International Songwriting Competition should put them ahead by a few lengths. The race is theirs for the winning next time round.


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