BEACHWOOD SPARKS: BEACHWOOD SPARKS (2000)
1) Desert Skies; 2) Ballad Of Never Rider; 3) Silver Morning After; 4) Singing Butterfly; 5) Sister Rose; 6) This Is What It Feels Like; 7) Canyon Ride; 8) The Reminder; 9) The Calming Seas; 10) New Country; 11) Something I Don't Recognize; 12) Old Sea Miner; 13) See, Oh Three; 14) Sleeping Butterfly.
It is said that the name «Beachwood Sparks» was coined together by the band's original drummer, Jimi Hey, out of the names of two adjacent streets in Burbank, California, native to the band's founding father and bass player Brent Rademaker. Whatever be the circumstances, the choice is brilliant. «Sparks», of course, suggests a psychedelic orientation, something along the lines of Tommy-style noise freakouts, which these guys certainly have a penchant for; but choosing «Beachwood» as a title modifier suggests something earthy, rootsy, and eco-clean — and is, consequently, in perfect agreement with the band's country-rock orientation.
The roots of this band reach all the way up to the «space cowboy» era of The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Easy Rider, and such — in fact, this categorization is so obvious that it gets verbally rehashed in just about any text that has to do with Beachwood Sparks. It is hard for me to judge in which particular location on the long line of evolution of that genre they happen to stand, since I am no big fan of country, be it «authentic» or «astral». However, they have such a good sense of balance that it is illegitimate to brand them as «country» — being no foes to distorted riffs, deep folk, sunny martial pop, or noisy interludes. Steel and slide guitar melodies lie at the core of their sound, but they have a pretty impressive «sonic periphery» as well.
This pretty little self-titled debut is fairly charming, if not altogether memorable. The band's weakest point is interesting songwriting — pretty much the bane of all country-based music, I guess — but they try, and, every once in a while, come out with a winner: my personal favorite is ʽThe Calming Seasʼ, with a pedal steel part from Dave Scher that's just as pretty as a songbird, but way catchier. On the rockier side, there is ʽSister Roseʼ, steadily galloping along on a lighthearted merry note, then gradually melting away in a sea of noise before, right at the very end, emerging once again to a steady country-rock mode of operation. (It actually seems to be a rip-off of some old Flying Burrito Brothers tune, but nothing exact pops to mind).
The album wins over through its complete lack of «pretense» — even the loud tunes are really quite quiet, including the band's two-part and three-part vocals, harmonizing together in a soft, high-pitched, semi-whispered manner. The arrangements, which may spill over into the noisy / trippy without a single warning and just as easily snap out of that state, are only as much experimental as they can allow themselves without breaking up with old-timey traditions of melody and harmony — and the basic idea of the album is a good old-fashioned celebration of peace, beauty, and idealism, without any excesses or overplaying.
Almost inevitably, the album tends to drag a bit, particularly in its slower parts. When they really put their backs to it, the band members are capable of generating a convincing atmosphere — for instance, on the brief instrumental interludes ʽSinging Butterflyʼ and ʽSleeping Butterflyʼ (despite the titles, there is not much difference between the two) where minimalistic steel guitar and keyboard parts merge together in a dreamy, otherworldly landscape populated with alien creatures making odd sounds («butterflies» don't really cut it, or maybe they're giant prehistoric butterflies equipped with powerful sonic generators). But just as often, they don't put their backs to it — ʽThe Reminderʼ and ʽNew Countryʼ are downright boring, with the latter of the two realizing this way too late, when, for its last thirty seconds, it launches into a fast country groove.
Nevertheless, on the whole this is a positive experience, heartily recommended to all the fans of a good, not too professional, but inventive, steel guitar sound, and to all those who like their «Americana» a little less self-conscious and a little more experimental than we usually see it. Maybe the idea of a band like Beachwood Sparks sounds more exciting than the actual band turns out to be, but that does not preclude ʽThe Calming Seasʼ from being one of the prettiest soft-rock numbers of the year 2000, so I would like to present the record with a modest thumbs up. Sure they aren't Wilco-level, but there is something to be said about the humble guy who doesn't like taking too many risks along the way.
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