[26 June 2012]
It has been almost a decade since Beachwood Sparks, the L.A. country-rock group, released anything. The band hit a high note with their second album, Once We Were Trees, released on Sub Pop in 2002, and then followed up the next year with the more difficult EP, Make the Cowboy Robots Cry, before quietly dissolving into various side-projects. But now they’re back with The Tarnished Gold, which resumes as if no time had passed, a fitting statement for a band that recreates the sounds from a bygone era, when psychedelia and country music cross-pollinated at the end of the ‘60s.
The disappearance of Beachwood Sparks does make some sense. Once We Were Trees, produced by J Mascis, was a great album that took the dedicated country rock sound of the band’s self-titled debut from 2000 and updated it for the new millennium. The band had already shown its chops at recreating the classic Laurel Canyon sound of the ‘60s and ‘70. And like the Byrds, or maybe Buffalo Springfield, Beachwood Sparks allowed the differing talents of various band members to shine forth in their own manner from song to song. The band had a breezy peacefulness that was infectious, if not groundbreaking. Yet Once We Were Trees added something more to the retro feel, by experimenting with textured droning sounds to fill out the tight melodic abilities at each song’s core, fuzzing out country rock with ‘90s noise pop. Already, however, one could hear the beginnings of discord. By the Robots EP, the band went off into the more experimental direction, ditching a good deal of its catchy songwriting, before disappearing. I could imagine an alternate universe, though, where the Beachwood Sparks took off in the early ‘00s indie rock boom in the place of, say, similarly twee label mates, the Shins. The Sparks had equally good melodic abilities, filled out with lush harmonies and ever-present pedal steel, but maybe they were just a bit too retro.
In the meantime, the band’s various members pursued different sounds, each an ingredient of the original Beachwood Sparks mix. Guitarist/vocalist Chris Gunst and his wife Jen Cohen started Mystic Chords of Memory, which carried on the twee ambience of the later Sparks recordings. All of the members did time with the Tyde, a classic power-pop band. The other main vocalist, Brent Rademaker had Frausdots, and then disappeared to Florida. Farmer Dave Scher, the pedal steel master, showed up in many different bands, like All Night Radio, then toured with Interpol and Jenny Lewis. And Aaron Sperske, the drummer, ended up playing with Ariel Pink, another man whose music fits nowhere better than L.A. (Pink also helps out in some capacity on this new album). That’s it for the “classic” Sparks lineup. But for the reunion album, all the members, past and present, show up in some way, and the band has extended into a seven-piece (Scher giving up pedal steel duty to Dan Horne, so he can focus on organ).
Now, before getting to the new album, it’s worth mentioning the band’s reasoning for reforming. In 2008, Beachwood Sparks played again for the Sub Pop 20-year reunion, SP20. They took that momentum to play a few more gigs. Scher lit a candle for reuniting. The clincher seems to be the fact that the band’s countrified, harmonica-laden, cover of Sade’s “By Your Side”, showed up on the soundtrack to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World in 2010, a nice ironic hipster time bomb that seemed to say the Sparks’ stars were now aligned. The climate had changed; their sound was more relevant, as evidenced by the popularity of other like-minded bands. This makes the band’s return sound a little calculated, which may be true. But there is another obvious motive at play.
The overwhelming theme in the lyrics of The Tarnished Gold is the act of returning to something and discovering what you had been looking for all along. This is literally the message of the title track’s chorus: “Funny how when you find what you’re looking for / It was already there / I don’t know why / The simple things hide / The bright shining light / That was and always has been you.” I might also add that it’s funny when a band whose sound is primed by nostalgia gets nostalgic for itself. That’s nostalgia to the second power. And perhaps fittingly, the new album jettisons any experimental pretensions to focus on fully inhabiting that good old country rock style. Almost all the songs on the album instantly sound familiar, showcasing the Sparks ability to write classic melodies that truly replicate the modes of the genre.
To confirm that the Sparks really know what they’re doing, the whole album has a self-referential feel. From the big and catchy opening track, “Forget the Song”, which starts the album strongly with an ironically unforgettable chorus, to the album closer, suitably named, “Goodbye”, the band comments on itself. The second track, “Sparks Fly Again”, puts it in a nutshell, as Farmer Dave (who rarely contributes main vocals) sings in what could pass almost unrecognized as a classic Byrds song, even down to the lyrics: “So come on over and start it tonight / Tampa to L.A. on a West Coast flight / The music is a home to return to / May the sparks fly again for you.” Scher traces the band’s reunion in yet another catchy tune, pointing to the possibility that the members’ reconvening was just as irresistible as their melodies.
There are a few more immediately standout tracks, like a representative Rademaker-led tune, “Talk About Lonesome”, strictly in the country vein, and the Gunst Byrds homage, “Earl Jean”, which declares in an uncomplicated way, “I love a happy ending.” (Is this the happy end for the Beachwood Sparks?) The band wanders into some dangerous territory, one-upping the hipster move of covering Sade by delving into mariachi sounds, with the Spanish song, “No Queremos Oro”. The song could be gimmicky, though it doesn’t seem out of place on a fully retro album like this. But the adherence to the particular sound of cosmic country rock is ultimately the band’s limitation. Though it doesn’t sound slavish, the reverence leaves little room for anything else. Perhaps this album takes more input from Neil Young than the Byrds—perhaps it doesn’t. See what I mean?
Beachwood Sparks were (or are) an interesting band because of their composite structure: the different members pulled the sound in various directions, so that an album sounded multifarious, yet remained coherent. For the reunion, Beachwood Sparks have ditched the hydra head approach and seem to be of one mind. Rather than have variety in composition, as Once We Were Trees did, The Tarnished Gold sound likes the most complete album by a solidly ensconced band. The variety is still there, but it now exists in the instrumentation. Each player, each vocalist, makes his mark, allowing the songs to unfold their richness over time. Immediately striking, however, are the band’s rich harmonies. Though harmonies like this aren’t hard to come by these days, Beachwood Sparks’ laidback sunny singing is nearly irresistible. Add, on top of that, the ethereal and spacious pedal steel. These sounds are golden for a reason, and denying them only lets in the gloom.