BEACHWOOD SPARKS: ONCE WE WERE TREES (2001)
1) Germination; 2) Confusion Is Nothing New; 3) The Sun Surrounds Me; 4) You Take The Gold; 5) Hearts Mend; 6) Let It Run; 7) Old Manatee; 8) The Hustler; 9) Yer Selfish Ways; 10) By Your Side; 11) Close Your Eyes; 12) Banjo Press Conference; 13) Jugglers Revenge; 14) The Good Night Whistle; 15) Once We Were Trees.
Everything about the concept of this album suggests that, with a little luck, it could have been one of the greatest records of the new millennium. An established country-rock band with a penchant for old-style psychedelia. An «eco-conscious» overtone. A musical link between all the green things that grow and one's own existence, a pantheist's paradise expressed in modern sounds, but steeped in tradition. A suggestive album title, and a pretty album cover to go along with it, somehow reminiscent of Friends by The Beach Boys — another record that seemed bent on exploring man's relation with nature and the transcendence of things.
This is what makes the ultimate reaction so bitter. There is no way to ignore the ambitiousness of the goals — not with a thirty-second introductory track called ʽGerminationʼ — but there is no way, either, that one could admit the goals have been fulfilled. To do that, Beachwood Sparks decide to move even further away from the idea of writing sharp, memorable melodies, and replace them with «atmosphere», understood as «unbreakable tissues of repetitive guitar / keyboard patterns». Now maybe there is a philosophical idea behind that decision — as in, plant growth happens on a steady, but quiet and inobtrusive basis, and so should the music. But at least that idea would have required better production than what we have here.
The album never really gets much better, or much worse, than its first real song, ʽConfusion Is Nothing Newʼ. Slow, echo-laden, with three or four guitars going off at the same time just minding their business — four different trees growing in their own different ways... okay, time to dispense with these comparisons. The multi-tracked vocals that come in are almost totally devoid of expression: they hit the notes all right, but this ain't even Byrds level, let alone the Beach Boys. Is it pretty? By all means. Tasteful? No complaints about that. But does it make you feel small? Big? Happy? Sad? A part of Mother Fucking Nature? One with the universe? One against the universe? All I can say is that, perhaps, the song would stand a better chance if differently produced, so that the vocals, guitars, and keyboards wouldn't get all glued together.
Another observation is that the songs, in their desire to combine elements of «normal» country pop with elements of ambience, simply end up too limp and diluted to qualify as pop songs — and too poppy to qualify as true atmospheric panoramas to relax and meditate to. The band is at its best not when it tries to take the middle ground, but when they give it their all in one or the other direction. Thus, ʽYou Take The Goldʼ and ʽYer Selfish Waysʼ, two numbers that pick up the tempo, are moderately fun and catchy; and on the other side of the fence, ʽThe Good Night Whistleʼ, with its repetitive structure ("train's going to sleep tonight, train's going to sleep tonight...") and train-whistle-imitating harmonica, is as close to putting you in a specific old-timey mindset as they ever get here.
In a nutshell, Once We Were Trees is a classic example of setting your plank so impossibly high, all that remains is sit back and hope the audience will only stare in awe at how high the plank is, failing to notice that you have not the least chance of making it. Maybe if they had themselves a Lindsey Buckingham in the band, or any other such master with a gift for melody and playing technique and atmospheric production, things would have turned out differently. As it is, they should have stuck with ʽThe Calming Seasʼ paradigm — aiming for fairy-magical slide guitar melodies that are not impeded by lethargy, numbness, and a cloak of redundant overdubs for maximum effect. As a not-unpleasant, but still jarringly disappointing sequel to a promising debut, Once We Were Trees (And We Still Play Like Ones) gets a thumbs down, I'm afraid.
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