Spring! Spring has finally come to Birmingham, though we’ve been forced to suffer through a drearier winter than usual in order to get here. At last we may take off our shoes and run barefoot into the garden to sink our toes into the newly thawed earth, to fill our nostrils with forgotten scents and our ears with the buzzing of industrious insects. Have you seen the first robin of spring yet? Have you dusted off the bicycle? Have you lay on your back in the now-warm midnight hour, basking in the light of The Worm Moon?
The what? The Worm Moon, so called because of the small mounds of dirt that form during its watch as earthworms begin to churn the soil anew, is the first full moon of spring. It is also the inspiration for the title of the newly released album Worm Moon Waning, by local Skybucket Records artists Through The Sparks. Though its timely arrival is likely accidental, the music itself fits perfectly with the season, an atmospheric record full of forgotten sounds and the promise of the unknown around every corner.
Through The Sparks is at its core three men—Jody Nelson, James Brangle and Greg Slamen—surrounded by an ever-shifting line-up populated with some of Birmingham’s best and brightest musicians. Duquette Johnston, Lee Bains, Preston Lovinggood and Shawn Avery all make appearances on this album, and the cover art was done by local artists Chris Lawson and Merrilee Chaliss.
The last time I checked in with Through The Sparks, they had just released their debut album Lazarus Beach, and there was a fair amount of hullabaloo about it in some prominent places. Pitchfork.com, Allmusic.com and numerous other outlets gave the record favorable reviews, so I was curious if the band felt any pressure to provide a repeat performance on the PR front.
“We kind of acquiesced to the fact that we don’t have the publicity we had for Lazarus Beach,” according to James Brangle. “It’s kind of getting to the point where you realize there’s only so much you can do with the funding you have, and for me that actually took a lot of the heat off.”
“Plus, when we were recording Lazarus Beach we didn’t know it was going to be released,” Jody Nelson says. “You can think whatever you want to, but what you’re going to make is what’s going to happen anyway, but we definitely would like it to be received well.”
I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but so far so good. This is a layered and eclectic album, intricate in its details without being precious. There are more instruments here than you can shake a drum stick at. My favorite moment is a quiet hook on the standout track “To Do No Harm” that is built around three hits of a freakin’ woodblock. They use a concertina, a saxophone and organs galore. They even use a ukulele and sleigh bells.
Even with all of these instruments, Through The Sparks manages to maintain a consistency of sound that not only runs through the entire album, but carries over from Lazarus Beach. It’s familiar without being a retread. There are more than a few steps forward taken here. The album feels cohesive, without the need for some of the throwaway tracks that tied the first album together, though it lacks a true single to match the earlier’s “Falling Out Of Favor With The Neighbors.”
The band has also made moves toward a more analog approach to recording. “Compared to the last record, everything was actually miked and in the room,” Nelson says. “There wasn’t really anything at all that wasn’t the real instrument moving sound through the air. When we did the last album, it was like holy crap, a Mellotron, nobody really had one, now you’re hearing Mellotrons on Fabric Softener commercials.”
The band also hired Lynn Bridges, who has produced tracks for Devendra Banhart as well as most of the high-profile bands that Birmingham has produced in the last few years, to engineer some tracks. This allowed them to record the songs live in the room together. Three of those tracks made it onto the album, including my two favorites, a driving tune that ends in an aching horn line called “Turn Everything Off” and the previously mentioned “To Do No Harm.”
If all of this is not enough to make you care, the band is currently giving away the digital version of the album for free at their website www.throughthesparksmusic.com, and are releasing a free single for download every month this year. Go get you some, throw it on the music player of your choice, and get out into this spring, before it fades into the blistering heat of another Alabama summer. The Worm Moon signifies the coming of spring, and the Worm Moon is waning. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Birmingham Weekly welcomes Sam George, who will be writing about popular music and other topics for this newspaper. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. George is also one of the editors of Birmingham music web site Bham.fm.