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Fire it up: The Beachwood Sparks rock the modern retro.

Western Electrified

The cosmic California sound finds a new outlet in the Beachwood Sparks

By Traci Vogel

IF YOU FOUND a Beachwood Sparks vinyl album in the dusty bottom drawer of a used-record store and put it on the player without reading the date of issue, you might assume you'd discovered some long-lost Gram Parsons-era side project. The L.A.-based band mines what Parsons termed "Cosmic American Music"--a blend of psychedelic sounds and good-old-boy country--with an astonishing assurance that belies their modern chronology. When Beachwood Sparks put out its self-titled debut last year, critics couldn't entirely dismiss the group as derivative because, derivative or not, these time-riders know their craft.

Beachwood Sparks' just-released second album, Once We Were Trees, continues the band's apparent mission to send listeners back to the time when pot was cheap and weak, and psychedelia its accompanying mode of transport. The album hangs together like smoke in the air; it's not a "concept album," per se, but it has a coherence that makes it feel like a series of short stories that all revolve around the theme of California nostalgia.

Dave Scher's slide guitar harkens right back to the sound of the Byrds, that quintessential Golden State project. From the opening reverie, "Germination," which is a 30-second psychedelic doorway, to the long slow guitar-rhythm trip of "The Good Night Whistle," this is an album full of wide open spaces to get lost in. The song cycle has a road-trip kind of narrative: things zip past, riffs veer from speaker to speaker and all along there's the nascent ruffle of highway wind, the refreshing sound of real emotion.

And this is what sets Beachwood Sparks apart from alt-country: the absence of irony. This is not a band riffing off references for the sake of postmodern tongue-in-cheek. All four members have put in hard time on the indie-rock circuit: bassist Brent Rademaker founded Christmas Records, which helped form the indie sound of Southern California; both he and vocalist Chris Gunst also played in Further. Drummer Aaron Sperske came from the Lilys, a band that did for sunny '60s pop what Beachwood Sparks does for alt-country. The cumulative experience lends the Sparks the kind of solid musicianship and band-mate harmony that's essential to this kind of jam-session sound.

This jammy fullness of sound even lends an epic quality to some of the tracks, carrying songs like "The Hustler" to a space where the bar stool is good and comfy. Too bad that Beachwood Sparks' lyrics don't carry the same kind of weight. Most of the songs read like a pothead's idea of universal philosophy, with lines like, "Grab a song from sweet Tennessee/ Ecstasy is riding high/ Grab a star in your hand/ When the sun rises just let it be." Hey, Mr. Spaceman, please take me away.

But it's easy to forgive the lyrics when being rocked gently by the Beachwood Sparks. The bright swirling guitar in "Confusion Is Nothing New," layered with vocal harmonies and bass that build and build, sends a kind of sparkly glee into the air that can only be described as, well, cosmic. Gunst's vocal twang on "The Sun Surround Me" hooks like a velvet lasso. And the toe-tappin' banjo sound of "Old Manatee" kicks up the dust of a lonely, sagging country porch.

Beachwood Sparks is the best thing to happen to California alt-country since The Flying Burrito Brothers. You can almost see Gram Parsons grinning from his perch in the cosmos.

Beachwood Sparks play Friday, Nov. 16, at 10pm at Cafe du Nord, 2170 Market St., S.F. with Love As Laughter and the Glands. Tickets are $12.

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From the November 15-21, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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