Echo Sparks is a trio who hail from Orange County, California. Among their ranks are founder D.A. Valdez and C.C. Kinnick on vocals, guitars and banjo and Cindy Ballreich on the double bass. The group released a self-titled EP in 2013, but Ghost Town Girl, released in January 2015, is their first full-length album. With their unique blend of early country and western, jazz and blues, Echo Sparks seeks to bring the romance and glamour of 1950s and 60s country to the modern era.
Many would argue that the musical genre of country hit its peak in the pop charts in the late 80s and early 90s. Country took on more upbeat tempos in songs by the likes of Garth Brooks, the Judds and Billy Ray Cyrus during this period. The advent of line dancing also helped country music to become a pop commodity in these decades. Nowadays, country is almost indiscernible from pop, as stars like Taylor Swift and Shania Twain make danceable hits and draw in huge crowds. Country purists, however, argue that something was lost in the evolution of the genre, and bands like Echo Sparks intend to bring it back.
Country and western music evolved out of the old west. Campfire and mining folk songs merged with blues and jazz to create this emotive music of the downtrodden. Singers like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and the man in black himself, Johnny Cash, played up the hard-luck stories of the old west and other folk traditions while infusing simple campfire guitar cords with the syncopation and rhythms of blues and jazz.
Later, country music would take on even more blues traits to create rock and roll, and the two genres grew up together in the pop charts of the 1950s and 60s. Rock would be known as the more fun and upbeat genre, while country and western was the more emotional and soulful. It is thus not difficult to see where country music could easily merge with pop, dropping the “western” part of its name somewhere in the early 80s to become more synonymous with rock and pop than ever.
The old country and western masters were still around during the 80s and 90s and into the early 2000s. Indie artists especially took new interest in the now less popular derivation of country. Johnny Cash, for example, saw a surge in popularity right before his death in 2003. He released a series of albums which contained cover songs originally by indie bands such as Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode which gave him high marks on the charts. Loretta Lynn also gained some indie fame by teaming up with Jack White on her 2004 album, Van Lear Rose.
Echo Sparks’ Ghost Town Girl aims to bring back what many feel was the golden age of country and western music for indie audiences, but in an even more genuine way. It blends mission-era California country music with blues, jazz, and a hint of alt rock tone for the modern ear. The album is full of classic country and western style, with songs like the title track, Broken Arrow, the album’s opener, and Princess of Fresno leaning heavily toward dusty country folk.
Tracks on the album which seem to be more indie-tinged include Rolling 60s, with its minor key chord progression and Torch Song, which has the most electrified-sounding guitars on the album. Torch Song and the more folksy End of the Line feature the clear, lilting vocals of C.C. Kinnick, where most of the album features both Kinnick and Valdez’s vocals. Kinnick and Valdez harmonize beautifully on all of their duets, sometimes singing together, sometimes in a round, and others with a classic country call-and-response technique.
Echo Sparks also stay true to their country and western roots by using very limited studio production on Ghost Town Girl. The unique and highly specialized sound of Cindy Ballreich’s double bass adds just the right amount of warmth to Valdez’s guitar and the two perfectly paired voices of Valdez and Kinnick. The lack of studio effects is obvious when viewing the band’s live performances, as the tones and timbres of each contributing member sound just as rich as on the recorded album.
For music fans who miss the romantic and evocative sounds of country and western eras gone by, Echo Sparks have picked up, dusted off and donned the mantles of greats like Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline for modern audiences. With old California folk as their base, Echo Sparks mixes blues, jazz, and just the right sprinkling of indie rock into Ghost Town Girl to give audiences a healthy dose of old west nostalgia with a fresh and modern sensibility. Ghost Town Girl is available to stream or purchase on Echo Sparks’ Bandcamp page. Live performances of songs both from this album and the band’s first EP are available to view on their website and YouTube channel.
Review by Layla Klamt