I’m too young to remember that L.A. was once the birth soil of a collection of bands known for bucolic rock ‘n’ roll that was harmony drenched and as expansively beautiful as a Pacific Ocean vista. This was back in the day, when women painted neon arabesques on their free-range boobs and Hassidic-looking white boys spilt stream of consciousness prattle about freeing their minds from the chains of bathing. All I remember about the Los Angeles music scene came from hair bands with their mic stands covered in cloth shreds and their wardrobe cribbed from the least discerning amongst our working girls. Fortunately, Beachwood Sparks is anchored in the older So-cal, updating the country rock of the Byrds and Gram Parsons with their own spacey recline.
“Drinkswater” opens with a Crosby, Stills and Nash lilt, and dreamy tumbling down-the-picnic-hill lyrics like “We danced and felt so strong / We thought that we could do it”. With its shimmering-lake guitar, fueled by cresting tempo changes and a healing dose of steel pedal, this sprawling first track showcases both the strengths and weaknesses of this release. Their strengths come through in the way that they make country-infused rock ‘n’ roll that isn’t easy to wrap up in the butcher paper of musical categories. But the song falters in the way that it wanders too much and too long, ultimately misfiring with its wide, yawny expanse. “Ponce de Leon Blues” bloats in the same vein, though it is almost saved by a few moments of star climbing chord and a vocal refrain that pierces like a cog-cleaned Neil Young.
“Hibernation” sounds less like a song and more like a sweeping mood score for a movie about a dark underwater forest where everyone sleeps all day. The vocals actually stand out on this track, escaping the instrumental gravity for a few seconds of sweet, halcyon melody. “Galapagos” starts off as the most enjoyable track, with its sparse, back porch banjo pluckin’, but loses its appeal in the finishing stretches of vocal distortion and uselessly incongruous noise interludes. Although I have enjoyed previous Beachwood Sparks records, I must admit that I have little patience for the lyrical content. On Make the Cowboy Robots Cry, the recurring theme seems to be some sort of acid causality metaphysics peppered with daisy-dented references to nature. It’s great to create imaginary worlds, but not so great when they sound like grocery store postcards of this one.
Finishing off the EP, “Ghostdance 1492” comes closest to rocking out in a very Canned Heat sort of way. With lyrics like: “. . . spinach and Muhammed Ali / A cloud in a whirlwind out of the west / We dance, my love, we dance . . .” and vocals that sound like they were sang through the back of a box fan, it’s really hard to bite my tongue. On a more positive note, the song’s optimistic slant incidentally brought me to remember the clappy inspiration of the Jefferson’s theme.
If the artwork is any indication, these boys are venturing down the road of psychedelic excess (dinosaurs with tails for heads, cacti in Lucky Charms hues), perhaps an ill-fated concept album looms on the Pollock-ed horizon. For my buck, it wouldn’t hurt to amp it up a bit, and pull some of the lagging tracks out of their brick-filled overalls. This EP leans toward the B-side, written on a peyote bender, end of the EP spectrum.
At the worst moments of Make the Cowboy Robots Cry, the vocals sound like recessed lighting, ambient in a very irrelevant way. The washed out sound of most of the tracks had the net effect of bleeding all the songs into brackish backdrop. What could have been an attempt at seamlessness, sounded instead like perpetually lost momentum. Here’s to hoping the next release stakes out bolder ground.