By the time indie Americana group the Court & Spark were making their fourth full-length album, Hearts, they were already pretty certain about their sound -- a calming, introspective mix of lap steel, acoustic guitars, poetic lyrics, and the occasional background sound effect -- which had been perfected in their 2004 releases, Witch Season and Dead Diamond River. So, understandably, they didn't change much for their next record. If anything is different, it's that Hearts is sadder than anything else the band has produced, with lyrics that speak -- often abstractly -- of loss, regret, and loneliness. Even the love songs, like "Birmingham to Blackhorse Road We Wandered," have a melancholy to them ("On my way through the gardens/I cried foul at my love gone forever"), and "High Life," which has M.C. Taylor singing "It's the high life for me/It's good to be free/It's the high life for me," is so slow and sad that it's obvious that at best, he's accepting mistakes he's made in the past and is trying to move on, but there's really no celebration or happiness. And while musically Hearts stays pretty close to what the Court & Spark have always done (an exception would be the vacuous opening song, "Let's Get High," which sounds like a single off the follow-up album of a nameless mid-'90s adult contemporary band that had once found moderate success), the four instrumentals on the album are where the band actually gets to show off. They experiment with different genres, incorporating indie rock, jazz, classical, and electronica influences while still maintaining their own style, and it sounds nice and doesn't disrupt the overall tone of the album. Though it's nice to have that consistency, it wouldn't be bad to see how the band could set these pieces to words and challenge Taylor's voice, which stays a little too frequently in a comfortable four- or five-note range. Listeners know he can do more (there are hints of it in "Capaldi") and that the band can do more (as heard in Witch Season) -- so even though Hearts is a nice album, a comfortable album, its safety is a little disappointing.
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AllMusic Review by Marisa Brown