Despite some solid moments, the interest in Desert Skies, Beachwood Sparks' long hidden debut, is mostly about setting context for later, far better albums.
When Beachwood Sparks released its eponymous debut on Sub Pop back in 2000, the band seemed to have emerged fully formed. Sure, it had put out a couple of singles, releasing "Desert Skies" b/w "Make It Together" in 1998 and the "Midsummer Daydream" single as part of Sub Pop's singles club in 1999. By the time of its first full release, the band seemed to have its psych-country-pop sound figured out, yanking the reins from the memory of Gram Parsons and riding off into the desert sunset. Beachwood Sparks,as was that release's name, also set up the more expansive sounds to come on the excellent Once We Were Trees and the Make the Cowboy Robots Cry EP. It was the start of a near perfect trio of recordings.
Except it turns out it wasn't the start at all. Desert Skies, the band's true debut, was never properly released. At least until now. What we get here is a far messier but still pretty interesting beginning to the band, the true document of Beachwood Sparks forming its sound. To hear Brent Rademaker tell it in the liner notes here, the band was in search of a respite from the whole "college rock" thing. Band members were spread out among various versions of that formless genre, and came together to dig into something far more psychedelic and, truly, a bit out of fashion for the time. The group's approach was rooted in country and folk traditions, but also deeply in the druggier side of classic rock. Desert Skies shows the band mining those influences for something its own, and sometimes finding it.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Desert Skies is that it feels far more muscled than the records that would follow. This is stuff built on big guitar breakouts. Even the calmer opener, "Desert Skies", doesn't twang so much as it rings out in distortion. Mid-album songs like "This is What It Feels Like" and "Watery Moonlight" have vocals, but are essentially instrumental pieces, the vocals creating the kind of Wilson-ian harmonies we'd expect, and repeating the titular phrases between big hooks and gauzy band jams. "Canyon Ride" dials the formula a bit closer to what we might expect from the band, slowing down the mix and letting oddball keyboards and effects ripple out into space over hazy guitars, while "Midsummer Daydream" becomes the epic on an album full of them, the guitars finally kicking up dust instead of spreading out on the astral plane like these other space-rockers. Comparing these moments to the band's gentler tones on later records, it's the sound of the group finally shrugging off that indie-rock history, exorcising it by laying it over these dreamier textures.
Of course, the band is still at its best when it taps into that vein of bittersweet pop that runs through all its great songs. The best thing here, "Time", highlights the vocals and makes the tangle of guitars and keys far subtler and, thus, more affecting. The second version of "Desert Skies" included here also achieves a similar intimacy, the kind that these other songs may start with but veer away from as the jams take on their own lives. "Sweet Julie Ann" toes the line between these the best, building from shadowy acoustics into big, spacey layers that land somewhere between Syd Barrett and the Flaming Lips.
But despite some solid moments, the interest in Desert Skies is more about historical context than it is about musical greatness. If later records tapped nicely into tradition and rendered it something unique, this first record is still trapped in its own influences. It's fascinating, in moments, to hear where the band started out, where it stumbled in frustration and where it wandered fruitfully, but too much of Desert Skies confirms for us what Rademaker highlights in the notes: the band was tired of rock music. The members had outgrown it, and you can feel it hemming each one in on many of these predictable jams. Of course, the highlights still echo with the revelation they must have provided the band at the time, but if these songs set the table for later, better, records, it doesn't keep your attention long enough to keep you from fidgeting, from reaching for your copy of Once We Were Trees or The Tarnished Gold, to get to something that's about the band and not just where it came from.