Ever since bands like Pavement and Guided By Voices first helped popularize a laissez-faire approach to recording and production values in the early '90s, popular music seems to have fully embraced the concept of imperfection for its own sake. Early Pavement and GBV recordings --- thin, scratchy, often homemade affairs --- were full of glaring "flaws" in the playing and sound quality. Imperfection wasn't merely tolerated but championed as a stylistic focal point.
Nowadays, thanks to the proliferation of affordable home recording gear, artists are encouraged to let it all hang out, to fly in the face of conventionally sacramental notions like staying in tune, consistent tempo, and taking time to develop material until it's "ready." A whole new world of creative possibility is now fair game.
But rough edges still can't replace genuine artistic vision.
Local duo Blue Spark and Flame --- drummer Joey Pitts and guitarist and principal songwriter Annalisa Morrison --- first comes across like a tumbling collision of sound. To focus on that, though, is to miss the substance under the surface. Not only is it thrilling to listen to Morrison and Pitts pull beauty out of the wreckage with stubborn assurance, but they also reveal something fragile and create a language all their own in the process.
Morrison's confessional lyrics offset her jangly, reverbed guitar and Pitts' rough-and-tumble drumming, placing Blue Spark and Flame somewhere on the continuum between retro garage rock and, believe it or not, folk. For content, Morrison mines the well-worn subject of romantic woe. Without question, though, the dark sensuality that hovers over her songs presents a bold, fresh perspective and establishes her as a new voice to be reckoned with.
In lines like, "You got a rocket in your pocket and a razor between your lips," (which appears on the latest EP, Horrible Sounds Record), danger and attraction get tangled in that chilling but irresistible way they do in real life more often than we care to admit. Even within the permissive boundaries of music, this is an emotional zone that few explore with such depth and courage, not to mention capacity.
Blue Spark's vocal approach, however, helps prevent the songs from dwelling in the morose. Most often, Morrison is joined by Pitts; one sings while the other screams. Amazingly, they wring smooth, melodic harmonies out of this combination. When they bellow, "why do you treat me so bad? / I am the best that you had!" the anguish is palpable, but the vibe is not without determination, dignity, and even fun. Throw in the band's signature sparse, haunted sonics and you get mood paintings, fleshed out with layers of emotional nuance until they become three dimensional.
Despite heavy suggestions of possessiveness, for example, there's a hint of childlike, playful taunting when Morrison sings, "I gotta know where you're going / I gotta know where you'll be tonight," while, at the same time, Pitts sings, "Are you going somewhere? / going somewhere? / going somewhere tonight?" These lines are followed by the more overtly sinister verse, "I got a neighbor / who's been watching me late at night / watching me in my sleep / he's a creep / that's what I like."
Flamboyant and boisterous in person, Pitts and Morrison are the first to tell you that they're crazy. Nonetheless, over the course of a rather revealing discussion, they expound fluently on topics like the overwhelming, anxiety-inducing nature of creativity, depression and mental illness (and why artists might be susceptible), ambition, and confidence. They also discuss how the volatility in their own creative partnership both frustrates and inspires them --- all of this is underscored with candor and a warm, inviting sense of humor.
Interestingly, when they both talk at the same time, they don't seem to clash or compete but sort of gel into one stream of thought that's noisy but seamless and discernable --- just like their vocals.
Pitts, who usually speaks bluntly with a deadpan tone --- as if she's the straight man and your laughter will necessarily follow every statement she makes --- sees the connection. Blue Spark's interplay, she says, "is just living for us."
Around Pitts, Morrison assumes the responsible role. Occasionally --- and hilariously --- she reaches over and covers Pitts' mouth at the mention of anything provocative.
"It's been hard for me to give up control," Morrison admits more seriously, "but I feel like Joey adds another dimension that I wouldn't have on my own."
Conflicts occur regularly, sometimes even on stage, which does pose challenges. When the worst happens between them, the pair claims, the energy works in favor of the music on the spot. Either way, even at its most congenial, a Blue Spark and Flame show treads a fine line between alarmingly messy and spirited, but the music usually regains its balance. The personal dynamic does as well.
"If you care about somebody," Pitts proposes, "you'll let them freak out and find a place in yourself to forgive them, let the waters calm, and understand the frame of mind they could be in at that time."
However they find a balance, it's working. One Horrible Sounds tune contains a gleeful shout: "It's a train wreck!" Indeed, Morrison and Pitts do a bang-up job of baring their souls with their power and guts intact.
For more info on Blue Spark and Flame or their latest release, Horrible Sounds Record, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. All BSAF cds are individually packaged by hand using miscellaneous arts and crafts materials.