When you think of all the covers you’d like to hear Beachwood Sparks take a stab at — dozens of songs from the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons . . . hell, even the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s take on Mike Nesmith’s “Some of Shelly’s Blues” comes to mind — Sade’s “By Your Side” might well be the absolute last thing that would cross your mind. This California quartet is our best hope for recreating Gram Parsons’ “Cosmic American Music” with any verisimilitude, so why would they try their hand at a recent adult contemporary hit, and better yet, who would want to hear it?
The answer, of course, is the answer to more than just those questions. It also answers the questions, “What kind of band is this anyway?” and “Who do they think they are?” On any given track, Beachwood Sparks might come off like a modern day country-rock band, mixing rock beats, pedal steel guitars and soaring vocal harmonies. But they’re more. These songs are drenched in a wash of psychedelic organ and guitar, the whole thing dipped in heavy echo and fuzz. So, the answer to all the above questions? Beachwood Sparks is a California band; it is the Byrds and the Beach Boys, Love and Buffalo Springfield, the Minutemen and Rank and File. Country-rock or alt-country might be the easiest tags to hang round the band’s neck, but it doesn’t follow the rules of that genre or any other, it offers more than any pigeonhole could hold.
So why not Sade? This is clearly a band with more ambition than your standard issue alt-country combo, and if the stylistic growth and heady evolution in its sound is any indication, it has the chops to match.
Once We Were Trees is the band’s sophomore disc, following close on 2000’s self-titled debut. That album, with its mix of Apples in Stereo-style retro pop smarts and Sweethearts of the Rodeo-era Byrds country cool, was an exciting, if uneven burst of sound that was both backward looking and forward thinking. Tracks like “Sister Rose”, the closest thing to a Gram Parsons track since that Georgia Peach took off from Joshua Tree, bumped up against moody ballads like “Canyon Rider” and more psychedelic tracks.
This new disc sounds slight at first, on its own and in comparison the debut. It has all the right pieces, but it seems hollow. No track packs the punch of “Sister Rose” or “Desert Skies”. Listen to it a couple of times on headphones, however, and you begin to hear things that were hidden. Thom Monahan’s (Pernice Brothers et al) production is so echo-laden and thick that it takes a close listen to discern everything going on here. This seems less accessible at first blush because it is less direct than the debut. This one dials up the psychedelia a notch or two, and does so within more challenging arrangements. Get past that intentional AM-radio blur and you hear a rich album full of texture and subtlety. Tracks like “Confusion Is Nothing New” or “Let It Run” are as good as anything on that first record, as good as anything put out by an alt-country act this year.
Chris Gunst’s voice, a reedy instrument that puts one in the mind of a pre-pubescent Neil Young or Nikki Sudden, is given the right support on these tracks, and the melodies are engaging and at time downright gorgeous. Even a vocal turn by pedal steel player Dave Scher on “The Sun Surrounds Me” feels right, his voice a nice change of pace.
Thing is, as good as this is, it could be better. Beachwood Sparks plays to its strengths for most of this record, but when it slips, it lets in a lot of light to brighten corners it ought not to illuminate. Want proof? Cue up “Hearts Mend”, the most overtly Parsonsesque moment here. This is a textbook GP tune, in sentiment and structure. The song takes off at the same slow trot Gram used on songs like “Juanita” or “Wheels”. Then Gunst chimes in, singing, “When will hearts mend for me? / When will I feel free? / Certainly not in this crowded city.” You can just hear Parsons crooning those lines, imbuing it with the love/hate he surely felt for LA. Gunst can’t convey near the feeling the verse requires, you pine for Parsons’s soulful vocals to carry the song.
That Sade song, too, is as much a revelation for what it promises and delivers as for what it hints at and leaves short. Sure, it’s a remarkably assured cover, a song fully absorbed into the Beachwood Sparks sound such that the original is little more than a sonic shadow in its presence. But it also points out the band’s drawbacks. When I first saw that song title on the sleeve, I thought of the Black Crowes recent song, not Sade (I’m in Iowa, where sultry R&B is as hard to come by as an ocean front view). It’s not a stretch; the Sparks opened for the Crowes on a string of dates last year, and who knows where inspiration may strike. It’s a different song, of course, but one I’d rather hear the Crowes attempt than the Sparks. Where much of this album is full and involved, the cover is thin, making one wish for the histrionic pipes of Chris Robinson or the overblown guitar pyrotechnics of his brother.
But these weak spots (if you can even call them that — maybe ‘less strong’ is more appropriate), stem from good songs that dont quite fit and experiments that while not terribly successful are the mark of a band that is trying, one that wants to get better and challenge itself. Better that than a band that cranks off album after album of the same stuff, right?
Beachwood Sparks was even able to absorb the guitar pyrotechnics of J Mascis. The Dinosaur Jr. axe-slinger owns Bob’s Place, the Massachusetts studio where the band recorded. J contributes some easily identifiable guitar work (if the band is playing on “8”, Js on “11”) on “Yer Selfish Ways” and “Jugglers Revenge”. J adds to the swirl of sound here, fitting in while giving these two tracks a well-placed kick in the pants.
While this isn’t a concept album, it is cohesive whole, the musical themes of the opening snippet, “Germination”, picked up and given full flower on the closing title track. Those two tracks neatly bookend a solid, consistent album that shows some solid evolutionary growth, a refined focus and still, room for improvement. Check back this time next year to see where Beachwood Sparks is at. If Once We Were Trees is any indication, it’ll be someplace worth a visit.