15 Nov 2001: The Troubadour Santa Monica, California
Behind the piles of vintage gear humming in expectance of their players hangs an arboreal backdrop. A painting of a tree cluster occluding distant, radiant sunshine in a patchy, arid desert plain. The still life is suspended in a delicate ambiguity. Is dusk descending or is this an idyllic sunrise? Such vague divisions and wavering flickers of uncertainty are intrinsic to tonight’s hometown headliners.
Staggering onstage in a mellow rainbow of denim blues, corduroy pastels, and velvet hues, the Beachwood Sparks are uniformly mop-topped and rail-thin. The dark scruff on the faces of both bassist Brent Rademaker and multi-instrumentalist “Farmer” Dave Scher trace the band’s long year of touring, marked by crowded vans droning night and day between smoke-obscured hotel rooms and the lit, loud landscape of the stage. Or at least that is what one would assume considering their impossibly refined aura. Far from the bargain-bin pop-button cowboy shirts and aviator-shade naiveté the Sparks embodied nearly a year ago, the band now resembles nothing less than some worn-and-forlorn gods of gentle thunder, somewhere between the pastoral psychedelia of the Incredible String Band and the peyote-fueled rawness of late, beard-era Byrds. Time-capsule inhabitants or connoisseurs steeped in the canon of jingle-jangle? The Sparks walk the blurry line between retrogression and progression. And they walk it well.
Comprised of seasoned veterans of the indie-circuit (Rademaker was once in bedroom psych-pharmacists Further and frontman Chris Gunst also did time in the emo-core quartet Strictly Ballroom), the Sparks most recently served as Kurt Easley’s latest incarnation of Lilys, an ongoing sonic songbook experiment where all things Brit-rock are mangled and spliced into some of the most brilliant music of the last decade. No doubt, the Sparks are master players, for who else could have handled Easley’s idiosyncratic arrangements and tempo montages? Loved by both Beck and the Black Crowes (the Sparks spent a good part of ‘01 crisscrossing the US opening for the Southern rockers), the Sparks appear tonight, with the addition of Neal Cassal on guitar and piano, in support of their sophomore effort, the dubiously titled, Once We Were Trees.
With instruments in hand, the Sparks launch into the night’s opener, a tender ballad from their eponymous 2000 debut. “New Country” betrays its seemingly majestic title with a somberness in which Gunst’s sunsoaked alto and Rademaker’s oaken baritone waft and wave above a rocking-chair slow shuffle punctuated by sorrowful sighs from Gunst’s harp. The duo intones, “It’s a long / trip to get out of this town”, each word stretched nearly past recognition to become floating, airy tones. Though he may be a carbon copy of Neil Young circa After the Gold Rush—from the stick-straight long hair framing his glazed gaze and the ever-present harmonica rack—both Gunst’s mane and moans (not to mention his lime-green cardigan) lack the coarseness and vitriol of the irascible legend. Regardless, what Gunst lacks in ire he makes up for with mellifluous melodies. The song concludes with Gunst and Rademaker singing, “If you ever get outta here / be sure to let me know” while the band’s honky-tonk tones swell and slide closer and closer to some cosmic climax. This culmination comes in the form of the tremendous “Confusion is Nothing New”, the standout track from the Sparks’ latest LP.
A whirlwind of heavily reverberated pedal-steel glides, courtesy of Scher, give way to a Farfisa-drenched, tidal wave of contrapuntal harmonies and trebly rattle. The song peaks with Gunst crying, “Don’t give into / the things that take away from you”. Next up is the rollicking stomp “The Sun Surrounds Me”, in which Scher takes to the mike and, between plucking spacious timbres from his pedal steel or pounding piano keys, croaks over drummer Aaron Sperske’s superb, scuffling groove. Scher’s voice is undoubtedly the weakest in the group, an inconsistent, Haight-Ashbury croon. Regardless, the song plods along—with Gunst and Rademaker chiming in on the chorus, “The sun surrounds me / and all I’m seein’ are the dark times”—before being snuffed out with a false ending and a brief, whirring coda of scratched strings and echoed plunks. The song is characteristic of the Sparks’ latest adaptation of what Gram Parsons once called “Cosmic American Music”.
On their latest LP, the Sparks have hop scotched from the Technicolor garage-rock and celestial Americana of their debut to more earthen (and more tedious) boogie-rock excursions. Luckily, most of these are sidestepped tonight—with the exception of the rowdy “You Take the Gold” and the saloon melancholia of “Hearts Mend”—in favor of gin-soaked ballads and fuzzy blasts of bucolic psychedelia. There’s the languid reading of Sade’s “By Your Side” which the Sparks turn into a yearning lullaby without the slightest ironic posturing. On “The Good Night Train”, with its swirling arabesque of resonant, plangent tones, the Sparks reach the twilight firmament they so often sing about. All four men take to the mike and chant over the murmuring soundscape, “The train is going / to sleep / tonight”. Gunst and Scher interject occasionally with lingering harmonica wheezes and shrill gusts from a wooden train-whistle, respectively. From this spiraling, elliptical drone the Sparks unearth their greatest song, and the evening’s apogee. It is called “Something I Don’t Recognize”, and was tucked away near the end of the Sparks’ debut. Tonight it begins a breezy clatter, all jangling strings and parallel harmonies, a more sedate cousin to “Confusion Is Nothing New”. Soon the ebb and flow of this polyphonic idyll gives way to a cacophonous zenith closer to Faust than the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Whether cultivating slow, tender blooms of sound, romanced with wistful narratives of loss and regeneration, or just disposing a reverberant stream of white noise, tonight the Sparks are never less than masterly. One can only hope they continue to forge ahead treading the blurry line that divides kitsch and craft. And continue on towards that elusive sunlight and further sonic expanses while so often gazing back, in admiration, of what is past and passing.