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Spark & Whisper get monumental

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Songwriters Velvy Appleton and Anita Sandwina share a special musical chemistry. The driving forces behind North Bay folk-rock outfit Spark & Whisper are like two sides of a coin, and they display that connection when they return from a recent hiatus to unveil their new album, Monument, with a pair of record-release shows this month.

Even though the two aren't exactly sure when they met, they remember where: a communal jam at the Strawberry Music Festival in Yosemite. Going to the festival "was such a revelation about how you could interact with music and musicians," Appleton says. After their initial meeting, the two started collaborating seriously in 2008 and formed Spark & Whisper in 2010.

Like the name implies, Spark & Whisper's music is filled with electric energy and hushed acoustics. After two celebrated folk-centric albums, the duo expands on their dynamic sound with Monument.

On the record, Spark & Whisper are backed by upright bassist Paul Eastburn, drummer Scott Johnson, pedal steel guitarist Robert Powell, keyboardist Michael Wray and cellist Joshua McClain. Appleton and Sandwina both helped in arranging each other's music. "We are accompanists as well as songwriters," Appleton says.

With all hands on deck, the music achieves a lively back-and-forth in style and tone, and the album builds on the group's folk foundations with a high-tempered rhythm that kicks in right away on Monument's title track, the album's opening song.

Several songs, like "Far from This World," begin as intricately plucked acoustic melodies and evolve into authentic alternative rock numbers. Then there are songs like "Little Bit More," a straight-up funk jam with an irresistible groove that's spiked by a guitar solo, one of many that Appleton provides throughout the album.

Lyrically, Monument is also a back-and-forth affair, with Sandwina and Appleton splitting the songwriting credits. The songs are largely personal and confessional, and speak to the musicians' hopes, fears and memories. "Monument," for instance, refers not to a national landmark, but rather to Sandwina's grandfather's house. Some of the songs have changed in resonance with the changing times, as both songwriters enter middle age in an uncertain political climate.

"We're not trying to take over the world, but it's important for us to say these things we want to say, and to be able to make something we're proud of," Appleton says.

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