Review : Beachwood Sparks - The Tarnished Gold
PopmattersIt 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)....full text
GuardianThe LA quartet Beachwood Sparks are a band out of time, in two senses. First, their third album comes the best part of 11 years since their last. Second, their music is so tied to the southern California of the late 60s and early 70s that it's hard not to imagine the songs as outtakes from the Easy Rider soundtrack. Curiously, though, that makes them feel more current than they did first time around: Beachwood Sparks are bathed in same the hazy, tinted nostalgia that powers Tumblr and Instagram. It helps, too, that Tarnished Gold is of a piece with their first two albums, but never a pale imitation. Earl Jean combines country rhythms with soft jangle of electric guitars, like the Byrds in their Clarence White era; Talk About Lonesome sounds like a ballad Neil Young wrote for Johnny Cash in 1972, then forgot about. The mariachi diversion No Queremos Oro is a little puzzling, but the rest's a summery shimmer of pleasure....full text
PastemagazineThe four soft-rocking Californians of Sub Pop’s Beachwood Sparks have been credited with launching, if not quite creating, the early-aughts rise of easy-to-listen-to, easier-to-nap-to, alt-country West Coast crooner rock—the very same variety that artists like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver proceeded to popularize and then polarize. And since the release of 2002’s Make the Cowboy Roots Cry EP, they’ve mostly left it alone. But they haven’t left it behind: A decade later, The Tarnished Gold presents a comforting, if occasionally too comfortable, return to form.
Ever-present are the looping choruses, lazy melodies and gentle, diluted vocals of Beachwood Sparks’ early work, funneled through lush, always lovely acoustica and wandering rhythm. It’s a dreamy tribute to time, if not a one particular moment in it: The Tarnished Gold moves through space like a guided nature walk—never a hike—drawing upon breathy, summer sounds and endless harmony to craft the perfect soundtrack for its creators’ home state. It’s as though they tracked down the sandy scene of Beach Boys lore and then woke up on it, sun-kissed but not sunburned, a few hours later.
Each song sets the scene for a different seasonal possibility. In “Talk About Lonesome,” the band narrates a hazy moment of solo sorrow, drawing upon harmonica and a generous amount of storytelling skill to guarantee that it sounds both sad and summery. “Don’t feel like talking to myself,” the guys croon across sparse acoustic guitar. “Empty bottles sitting on the shelf / rain beating down on the roof like a lonely drum.” In the background, crickets and various other creatures of nature buzz for added percussion....full text
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