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In the fall of ’67, man, L.A. was the place to be. I’m telling ya, all kinds of bands were jumping like horny toads into the holes that the Beatles and Dylan had blown into rock ‘n’ roll. The Byrds were totally happening, of course—Roger McGuinn was obsessed with jets, trying to make his guitar sound like a Lear jet taking off. And Neil Young had a band too, with Stephen Stills and Richie Furay: Buffalo Springfield, great stuff. Morrison was freaking people out down at the Whisky with the Doors, and the Mamas and Papas, “California Dreamin’”—that said it all. And they said Brian Wilson was starting fires in his studio, gonna out-Beatle the Beatles! This long-haired country singer, Gram Parsons, that dude was far out, too. Man, that was the time…
Hey, listen, I hear you, and the Beachwood Sparks do, too. Just listen to what guitarist Chris Gunst recently told an interviewer: “We admire what people were doing then. We just wish maybe it could be as peaceful now as it was then.” Hmm. Let’s see, four rail-thin longhairs with pork-chop sideburns, sporting shirts that look like leftovers from The Horse Whisperer, getting wistful for L.A.’s pre-Altamont days. And, oh yeah, opening shows for Beck, getting hot-picked by the Times of New York and of L.A., and being written up in the latest issue of new country’s hip rag, No Depression, which also featured a full-page ad showing the Beachwood Sparks album cover and nothing else. An album, it should be noted, being released by seminal indie Sub Pop, which the band opted for after the majors failed to satisfy. For a quartet not yet two years old, with just a pair of rarely seen singles to its credit, the Sparks are indeed flying with band-of-the-moment buzz.
Dip into their eponymous debut, and it’s immediately apparent that they’ve soaked up the Byrds, Springfield, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Parsons, along with choice Moby Grape, Grateful Dead, and Buck Owens. Specifically, the Sparks dig in where the spare folk groove of The Notorious Byrd Brothers rubs against the creaky harmonica of Young’s After the Gold Rush. It is a testament to both the quality of those records and the band’s sharp sensibilities that this audaciously derivative recording doesn’t sound prodigiously stale.
Without grand gesture or chest-thwacking bravado, the Sparks’ album creates a snow-globe world in which the past 30 years don’t seem to have occurred at all. They lie under “Desert Skies” pondering “The Calming Seas” and strolling in wonderment through the “Silver Morning After.” Later, they beg the “Old Sea Miner” to “wake us from our winter spell.” The jaunty, jaw-harp-driven “See, Oh Three” hints at the Lovin’ Spoonful and wouldn’t be out of place on Sesame Street. The Sparks’ straight-faced yearning for natural vibes is the kind of thing Jed Purdy might enjoy as he bangs out his latest treatise on the connection between wild raspberries and the death of the handshake.
Despite their wide-eyed, back-to-the-Canyon lyrics, the Sparks’ sound shouldn’t be chalked up to musical and/or cosmic serendipity. A background check on the Beachwood boys reveals that slide-guitarist Dave Scher and Gunst logged free-form DJ hours at Loyola Marymount’s influential KXLU and bassist Brent Rademaker worked with indie-rock journeymen Further. Drummer Aaron Sperske keeps his indie tool sharp in the Lilys. Not to imply that the whole affair is contrived, either, because that isn’t the case. The Beachwood Sparks really come across as a combination of the two: part willful retrogression and part late-blooming hippie idealism. Or perhaps it’s something else, as Gunst explained to Music Connection magazine: “We just started this to play some really good country rock.”
Scher decorates most of the compositions with buttery steel licks, but they have far more in common with folk rock than Parsons’ seminal country-rock blend. Given the dangers of playing in such an atavistic style, it’s amazing that the record feels so alive. You can forgive even the band’s taking 11 songs (not counting three disposable interludes) to stake out its throwback turf because, regardless of whether you’re buying the whole ’60s trip, they’re just too damn catchy to overlook. Dig the crackling “Sister Rose,” whose delightfully wavering harmonies tangle with a spiraling guitar, and the stark come-down of “The Reminder”—both possess melodies that wander into the brain at unexpected moments. “New County,” a Young-ish slice of melancholia, asks, “Are you still keeping time in the back of your mind?” Funny they should ask. Beachwood Sparks may be retro, but, after a few spins, it comes alive in the back of your mind, sometimes confusing your mental rock ‘n’ roll timeline.
Just as the Sparks’ debut LP arrives, some folks are out there claiming that a movement of new folk-rockers (e.g., the Fairport Convention-inspired Continental Drifters) is afoot. Whether or not that’s true, and whether or not it lasts, it will be interesting to see what the Sparks do with their early buzz. Surely a band with such a keen sense of history is well-aware of the second-album (and subsequent career) collapses of the Knack or Men Without Hats. (Has anyone listened to Folk of the 80’s Part Three lately?) It’s entirely possible that the Sparks won’t even get to album No. 2, that the band will break up right now and fade into obscurity. After all, this whole rock ‘n’ roll thing is starting to sound kinda dated. CP