Chris Daniels,
The Kings & Friends,
The Spark
(Moon Voyage, 2003)

Chris Daniels and the Kings have won awards as a rock band, a dance band, a swing band, a cheese danish -- all right, I made the last one up. But with their flexibility and wide-ranging musical influences, it's hard to know what category the group fits in (although jump-blues captures some of the merry melancholy of their sound). They prefer to think of themselves as "the hottest seven-piece horn band in the U.S." and I'm willing to allow that just might be. But it might also bring to mind images of loudmouth brass, narrow walls of jazz or big band music. There's certainly some of that flavoring The Spark.

But The Spark is also something of a diversion from the King's usual material. Daniels here pursued a more acoustic, guitar-driven tone, though without abandoning those fine horns. Fortunately there's a minor army of polished guest musicians throwing in their guiding hands. Mollie O'Brien, Steve Riley, Sonny Landreth, Sam Bush top a double column of excellent musical guests who help Daniels hone the new sound he's discovered for the album.

That acoustic sound tends towards a blues/western feel on many of the tracks. Daniels claims his songs are influenced by his experience of the American West -- the actual, modern West where he lives, a place of poverty, beautiful landscapes and plenty of nightspots where a man can lose his heart. The influence of the western landscape is clear throughout the album, from lines about wide cowtown streets to the lonesome tumbleweed feel of the guitars. I can imagine Lyle Lovett performing many of these original songs, like the rambling "50/50" or the flashy, folksy "She's the Reason."

Lightening the dark looks into seedy small towns are plenty of brighter moments, like the fluffy "Kelly Jean" and sly "Tuesday Man." There's even a song built ever so carefully around NYC's World Trade Towers, "If I'd Only Taken You Dancing." With a poetic use of symbolism and an understated but overwhelming sense of loss, it manages to be the most affecting song on the album.

It probably says something unfortunate about me that I prefer the wry humor and light touch of "Biggest Heartache on the Block," a charmingly sarcastic farewell duet. That touch of humor is evident throughout the album in musical touches as much as the lyrics. My favorite is the little solo aside that kicks off "In The Night" before it hits its swinging feet.

Chris Daniels and the Kings seem to know they've got something hot here; The Spark comes in a finely designed limited matchbook packaging, with the heads of the bandmates ready to strike up a fire. The old-fashioned flair of the design is fair warning of the energy inside. The matches may be false, but The Spark is genuine.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 17 April 2004

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