The ironic thing about labeling bands is how little the labels tell you about their music. "Alt-country," for instance, is a catch-all phrase created by marketers in the mid-1990s and latched onto by lazy music writers like a compound-modifying life vest. No one can tell you what it constitutes, but leaf through any weekly or music glossy, or surf any Internet music site, and you'll still find "alt-country" mindlessly pinned to bands from all over the musical spectrum whose only sin was using a pedal steel guitar or covering Willie Nelson.
Carla Bozulich and San Francisco's the Court & Spark -- part of a sparkling bill at Amos' Southend Tuesday that also includes Shearwater and the Dead Science -- are two acts that the "alt-country" tag follows around like an unwanted stray.
"'Alt-country' especially is an impossible thing to get away from," says the Court & Spark's singer, MC Taylor. "I think everybody agrees that it's a horrible epithet, and it's going to plague us until the end of time, I'm sure."
Taylor laughingly accepts his band's "share of the blame" because the group has tapped into its love of country music on occasion. But as its recent catalog -- this year's stellar Hearts, and 2004's Witch Season -- clearly suggests, there's a lot more going on, from '60s English folk and '70s Topanga Canyon country rock to Spiritualized-like space explorations and Miles Davis-inspired jazzy interludes.
Bozulich has been laboring under the epithet even longer, despite the fact that she's one of rock's most iconoclastic and restless musical spirits. Listen to her most recent release, the audio catharsis Evangelista, and you'll be wondering what exactly constitutes the "country" in "alt-country" -- which is precisely the point.
Yes, Bozulich's mid-1990s band, the Geraldine Fibbers, mingled X punk and Sonic Youth dissonance with compellingly dark narratives and twangy accents that sounded like an urbanized version of Tragic Songs of Life-era Louvin Brothers. And, yes, she did a brilliant reimagining of Willie Nelson's classic Red Headed Stranger in 2003, morphing the dusky, sparse songs into Eastern-flavored ragas, jazzy waltzes and experimental improvisations. But as one reviewer wrote, "Bozulich understands implicitly: legend is for extrapolation, and ultimately for revisioning in a new place and time." Red Headed Stranger wasn't "alternative country," but an updating of the form into something far more honest than the pop-inspired horse shit oozing out from Music Row.
"My albums are always so different from each other," says Bozulich. "I just don't have any patience for stuff that is watered down, or repeating more of the same of what you've already heard. I think Evangelista is in a way a statement about that."
Bozulich began Evangelista as a paean to the twin inspirations of love and music when she started sketching out some tape loops in her LA home. But between then and the recording of the album in Montreal with members of Godspeed You Black Emperor! and A Silver Mt. Zion, her personal life dive-bombed. The concept underwent an emotional sea change; the inspiration was still there, but in a darker, more urgent light.
"I was faced with this situation where I had a project in hand which wasn't really appropriate to the way I was feeling anymore," Bozulich says. "I felt this grief instead, and I decided not to water it down, to say exactly what I was feeling. People that don't want to hear somebody talking about what's really inside of their yucky, dirty guts may not like the record."
There's no denying Evangelista's intensity. Bozulich practically speaks in tongues, her roaring, exhorting or whispered vocals matching the music's anguish, conviction and longing. The record is book-ended by two emotionally raw, mostly improvisational pieces intended as sermons -- "Evangelista 1" and "Evangelista 2." Both are created from looped guitars and backward calliopes, field recordings, and string overdubs. "How To Survive Being Hit By Lightning" and "Prince of the World" use some of the same techniques but add a gospel feel. Bozulich also reinterprets the traditional "Steal Away" and Low's "Pissing," somehow investing the latter with an even more wistful, funereal mien.
"[Evangelista] was supposed to be a statement about not being jaded after all these years and still feeling this intense inspiration from sound and from love," she says. "Those things being my salvation, I'm recommending them for everyone."
If Bozulich is renewing her inspiration, the men in the C&S have been seeking to refine theirs. After its 1999 debut, Ventura Whites, the band's 2001 sophomore effort, Bless You, featured pedal steel player Tom Heyman and former Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother Gene Parsons -- which is when the "alt-country" tag really took hold. But in the intervening three years before Witch Season hit the streets, the band vowed to take a different approach.
"We love country music, but there's so much other stuff that we listen to and other sounds that we make that we felt we should try and incorporate those, otherwise we were going to get stuck with that label," Taylor says.
Witch Season was a sonic leap forward as well. Taylor and company insisted on recording to tape only, which meant expensive studio time and plenty of gigs to pay for it. The process dragged on far too long, and Taylor felt the record suffered somewhat from the "deliberate" recording pace. So when it came time to record Hearts, the band opted to make use of guitarist Scott Hirsh's computer skills (Hirsh recently coauthored a book on Pro-Tools) and record much of the record in its Mission District home.
Armed with a copy of Obscured By Clouds, an early Pink Floyd soundtrack whose ambience the band greatly admires, the Court & Spark traveled down the coast to LA to have Hearts mastered by Doug Sax -- who had mastered Obscured almost 35 years earlier. Now in his 70s, Sax couldn't even remember mastering the record, and had to call Floyd's main engineer, James Guthrie, for confirmation. When told that there was a young band who wanted to replicate Obscured's feel, Guthrie reportedly asked, "What the hell would they want to do that for?"
"The sound of [Obscured] is like everything is coated in honey," says Taylor. "It cost us $2,500 for about seven hours of Sax' time, but it was completely worth it. We never batted an eye."
The band wanted the record to recapture the feel of vinyl sides, so the songs run seamlessly together in two 20-plus minute, suite-like chunks. The result is that Hearts bubbles in a stoned sonic soup, an elegance and grace permeating songs that recall Fairport Convention and acoustic Traffic as much as they do fellow Northern Californians Six Organs of Admittance or American Beauty-era Dead.
"I think San Francisco and Northern California in general has had a pretty profound effect on the way our records sound, just in terms of the natural beauty of things up here," says Taylor. "To me, the way it feels here on a sunny day, our music is the physical translation of that. It has that milky, melancholy feeling to it, and that's what we aspire to tap into."
Which is precisely what music should inspire -- feelings and memories, not meaningless labels.
Carla Bozulich, the Court & Spark, Shearwater and the Dead Science play Amos' Southend Tuesday. Tickets are $10 in advance (available at www.etix.com) and $12 the day of the show. Doors open at 8pm.