Unless you live under the proverbial rock, you’ve seen the intersection between acoustic music and pop-influenced hit songwriting explode with mass-appeal bands who pepper radio stations, award shows, Billboard charts, and arena stadiums with their highly catchy, highly pleasant, mostly innocuous brand of foot-stompy, anthemic music. You don’t need me to go down the list. There is nothing wrong with enjoying these acts – most are fine musicians and skillful players and there is much to admire. I do however occasionally balk at the sloppily cobbled together genre identifier “folk-pop” that is frequently thrown around. I spend a good portion of my time arguing against the lazy use of genre classifications, particularly because in this age of interconnectivity and real-time sharing, what does genre even mean? When I can swoon to Joan Baez one second, twerk with Big Freedia the next, and write songs that are equally influenced by both, what does it truly mean if I start calling my style “Bounce-folk” (p.s. don’t steal that style because I called it). What I do think is important with regard to genre is understanding and appreciating the roots and history of the style. For many folk-pop or folk-influenced bands currently, I think that appreciation is missing because, at its core, folk music is about storytelling. Many of these groups churn out pop hits masquerading as folk music, but the stories aren’t there.
That brings us to Yellow Red Sparks, a California based band led by Joshua Hanson who initially created the name as a moniker for his solo activities. Yellow Red Sparks is now a trio with Sara Lynn Nishikawa and Goldy joining on bass and drum duties, respectively. At the beginning of 2013, the three released their eponymous debut and have been touring and building a dedicated audience. It would be easy to stamp the band with that “folk-pop” label. They are all excellent musicians with creative ideas that take the songs into interesting and unexpected directions, but still have a sense of the familiar to keep listeners engaged. Acoustic instruments, orchestral arrangements, and strong melodic sensibilities are all present. I could be describing any number of bands at this point. Where Yellow Red Sparks shine and really blow imitators out of the water is in the songwriting, the tie to the folk in “folk-pop” or the heart of “Americana.” Hanson won the prestigious International Songwriting Competition last year, not for a specific category mind you, but the grand prize. Rightly so because his songs read like well-crafted short stories. They have dramatic development and work together so well with the band that at times it feels like a soundtrack to a movie running in my head. I’m on the edge of my seat wondering what’s going to happen next – how often can you say that about a song? Yeah, the trio can spin a good tale.
Before a concert at Ortlieb’s, Yellow Red Sparks performed a pared back set for us, using an acoustic guitar, upright bass, snare drums, and voices to show us a different side of these songs. The stories are as strong as ever.