The record opens with the sunshiny charmer, “Dear Elisabeth.” Breezy bass lines connect with twinkly percussion jingle-jangle guitar and sylvan strings. Sweet-sour harmonies and the sweeping melody cushion lyrics that decry the gossipy nature of small towns. Mark cautions there’s “no one to write your soul” and not to dwell on the past, “don’t look back and pull the weeds.”
Childhood memories are at the forefront on the title track And “Seminole Valley Tea Sippers Society.” “Spokeswoman…” blends dreamy strings, prickly qanon fills, rumbling bass and tambourine shake percussion. Stream-of-conscious lyrics reference a vivid dream Mark had about his Irish Grandma speaking Gaelic. Her spectral presence prompts him to confide “I like going where you’re going, doing all the things you like to do.”
“Seminole…” is powered by kaleidoscopic mellotron, plucked strings, a propulsive rhythm and sidewinding acoustic and electric guitar. Lyrics like “Tall buildings in Iowa were made of stone, schools were made of stone, churches lovely sandstone,” draft off sharp recollections of Mark’s mother’s hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Musically, three tracks time-travel back to the Psychedelic ‘60s: “Time Of Love” blends jangly guitar, swelling strings, mellotron notes that shapeshift from lush to trippy, a galloping back beat and roiling bass lines. The lyrics insist that without love as an emotional anchor, it’s easy to lose “your peace of mind.”
Thundering drums and nettlesome strings open “You Are All.” The intricate arrangement and candy-coated instrumentation echo Brill Building songcraft and Wrecking Crew musical prowess. But much like Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” the presence of “candy sand castles” and “a lollipop sky,” can’t camouflage the song’s melancholy undercurrent.
“Nicola” offers an oblique recollection of the Topanga Bluegrass fest Mark attended as a teen. Something of an aural snapshot, it captures that gray area between innocence and experience. Click-clack rhythms anchor swirling strings, chamberlain, dulcimer, plus Mark and Ingunn’s intertwined harmonies.
A stand out song here is “Mary Frances Strong.” It’s a tender encomium to Mary Frances Strong, the author of the invaluable “Desert Gem Trails” book. Wistful and beatific, it opens with rattling bongos and folds into a pulsating rhythm accented by twinkling percussion and pastoral mellotron and chamberlain.
Both “Gravity Loss” and “All My Days” gain emotional nourishment from the desolate surroundings of Joshua Tree, and the satisfaction of manual labor. On the former, Mark and Ingunn’s plaintive harmonies lattice over layers of plangent guitar, rubbery bass and cascading percussion. The desert is “Where my life starts again.”
The latter is a handclap-y cha-cha-cha propelled by off-kilter percussion and ringing guitar. Passing by “the house we knew, painted once in June,” Mark is reminded of the sense of accomplishment that accompanies spilled paint, sweat-equity and the laughter involved in repainting a house.
The album closes with “Death Valley Soda Pop Cool Down Dream.” The lyrics circle back to the same theme explored in the opening track: gossip and hearsay are toxic habits and abhorrent professions. Qanon notes dart and pivot through the suite-like melody, like a fluttery hummingbird, enveloping languid mellotron and chamberlain runs and rippling guitar; an ambitious finish to a wonderful record.
spokeswoman of the bright sun was handcrafted in Joshua Tree. Mark created the songs on their back porch, he and Ingunn recorded their parts on a Nagra field recorder. He played acoustic and electric guitars plus the dulcimer, she handled mellotron, chamberlain and qanon, (the traditional zither-style instrument, prominent in Greek, Turkish and Armenian music). Superstar drummer Danny Frankel added all the percussive touches and Lewis Miller provided bass.
Of course, special attention should be paid to Mark and Ingunn’s symbiotic vocal blend, which echoes ‘60s antecedents like Grace Slick and Marty Balin from Jefferson Airplane and Mama Cass and Denny Doherty from the Mamas And The Papas.
Mark Olson has been making music professionally for more than 30 years, either as part of a band or a solo artist. Each album feels like a mile-marker charting the course of a richly nuanced musical journey. The inherent beauty of spokeswoman of the bright sun is it honors the past but continues to look forward.