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By Amanda Savage
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A couple years back when Beachwood Sparks first stepped into the spotlight -- its members looking very much like they'd just stepped off the cover of the Notorious Byrd Brothers LP -- it was an easy group to tag. Four guys wrapping themselves up in Gram Parsons' Nudie suit, sailing along on a hickory wind and infusing the old GP sound with a healthy dose of psychedelia. This was twang touched by acid blotter, country music viewed through a kaleidoscope.
Their debut album -- a pleasant, if somewhat subdued, affair -- garnered enough praise and sales to warrant a second effort, and so it was that they began work. Crafting a follow-up, the band could've played it safe, replicating the formula, coasting on the strength of its style -- vintage threads, moptops and mutton chops -- and taking the easy out.
But next month, when Beachwood Sparks' Once We Were Treeshits stores, the album -- all 51 dizzying, deceptively nuanced minutes of it -- will prove otherwise. It'll provide the splendid, if all too rare, thrill of hearing a band fuse together its disparate influences with a sparkling clarity, a disarmingly natural ease.
On the surface it may not seem that the album boasts anything quite so outré or vaultingly ambitious. It's more that it makes a perfect visceral and textural connection, a seamless blend of the old, the new and the timeless into something fresh and luminous.
It's what the embryonic country-rock of Parsons or Gene Clark might've sounded like had they grown up listening to Sonic Youth or Joy Division. The kind of stuff the Soft Boys might've come up with if they'd emerged from the Cotton Belt instead of Cambridge.
And if you're a certain kind of music fan, one whose stereo rotates The Band, Underwater Moonlight, Gilded Palace of Sin and Moby Grape, it might be the best record you've heard in a long, longwhile.
Beachwood Sparks instrumentalist David Scher -- Farmer Dave to his friends -- is in the middle of a small crisis, though you wouldn't know it from his weedy, laconic demeanor.
The band is stuck in Spokane, Washington, with a busted gasket, a wheezy Hammond B-3, and a gig opening for the Black Crowes in Vancouver in a matter of hours. "Our van's in the shop and our organ is in the shop, so it's a race against time," he drawls in a slow, stoner patois.
Handpicked by Crowes front man Chris Robinson to open the group's current tour, the Sparks have been afforded their widest mainstream exposure with the gigs. And to their surprise, they've been met with overwhelming approval from the Crowes contingent.
"We thought we'd be fighting for our lives playing psychedelic country, but they're digging it," says singer/guitarist Chris Gunst.
"We've been fitting in really nicely," agrees Scher. "We're playing for people who're coming to hear -- I don't know -- I guess you'd have to call it American rock music. But there's also a sense that a lot of people who appreciate us just love music -- period. And I don't know if there is a name for that."
That -- in part -- seems to be the essence of Beachwood Sparks' dilemma. Too trippy for alt-country aficionados, too country for indie rockers, and too unorthodox for anyone else, the band's inscrutability has proved to be a double-edged sword, earning it points for originality but leaving it in a stylistic no-man's land.
Of course, none of that was a concern in late 1997, when the Beachwood Sparks began as a sorta side project for a group of L.A. music vets. At the time, bassist Brent Rademaker and Gunst were crafting some compelling noise-pop in a group called Further (Gunst would also go on to lead Eno-core -- as in producer Brian -- band Strictly Ballroom). Along with Gunst's old college pal Scher, and a trio of like-minded talents, the group was born. Eventually the fledgling sextet was pared down to a four-piece and joined by drummer Aaron Sperske, an alum of the Miracle Workers and Lilys.
By the time the band began to really define its direction, the members -- all native Californians -- naturally gravitated to an amalgam of indigenous sounds. They eventually settled on a '60s West Coast hybrid: the blissed-out harmonies of the Beach Boys; the biting guitarscapes of Buffalo Springfield; dashes of Working Man's-era Grateful Dead; and, of course, large heapings of Parsons' ISB/Byrds/Flying Burrito Brothers axis. While reaction to the Sparks seemed to focus largely on their debt to the latter, they steadfastly maintained that their sound wasn't the result of some grand design, a calculated effort to search out their Cosmic American muse.
"We were just trying to make country music," insists Gunst, "and not really knowing how to play country music, it might've come out sounding like that. It's weird, it was more that we didn't know what we were doing."
Regardless of their intentions, the Sparks' hometown concerts quickly spawned a small scene, becoming a melting pot for fellow musicians -- among them early supporters Beck and Lou Barlow -- hipsters and industry insiders. After releasing a handful of seven-inch singles on indie imprints Bomp! and Sub Pop, the band generated a sufficient buzz that major-label monolith Interscope records came calling -- the corporate entity somehow misguidedly convinced that the Sparks had the commercial potential to be some sort of post-millennial Poco.
"I don't know what that was about," shrugs Gunst. "We went over to the [Interscope] office once during the day. It was all pretty meaningless."
Instead, the band opted to sign with Seattle's Sub Pop, recording and releasing its self-titled debut in March 2000. "Mellow" seemed to be an adjective that cropped up frequently in connection with the record, a stark contrast to the group's live sets which mutated its material into a dense assault of focused noise (the Sparks' turn at the 2000 South by Southwest music conference served as a blistering 45-minute slap in the face of those who'd dismissed them as peaceful, easy feelers).
By the time the touring cycle for its debut drew to a close late last year, the band had decided to make a conscious shift with its impending follow-up -- not to toughen its approach so much, but rather to give the music -- as Scher puts it -- "more edges and texture."
"We set to it last Christmas, trying to come up with all new songs," he says. "The stuff was written, and then tightened up by this March to go in and record."
With a batch of fresh material ready, the band reunited with producer Thom Monahan (Chappaquiddick Skyline, Scud Mountain Boys) and headed for Amherst, Massachusetts, and the home studio of indie rock godhead J. Mascis. With the frigid Northeastern winter still lingering, the band settled into Mascis' warm, comfortable digs for nearly a month. Alternately working, playing and hanging out, the clubhouse vibe of the sessions proved pivotal in shaping the album.
"It was a lot different than the first one," offers Gunst of the process that yielded the forthcoming Once We Were Trees. "We wanted to make the recording of the songs a bit more natural. We just set up in the living room and went for it like that. It wasn't so much of a studio, more like hanging around in a house and playing music with your buddies."
"We were really bouncing off the fact that we were in J. Mascis' house with all the snow falling down outside. That was really kind of magical and inspiring," enthuses Scher.
"It was an organic environment," adds Gunst. "There wasn't even a talk-back button into the control room. For us to know the tape was rolling, Thom [Monahan] would bang on the floor with a broom. That's how we knew when to start," says Gunst, laughing.
The resulting 15-song Trees -- set for release on October 9 -- is an achievement of roots rock alchemy that immediately recalls The Band's famed "Brown Album" (coincidentally enough, it, too, was recorded in the home of a music celeb -- Sammy Davis Jr.). While the Sparks don't approach the grand Americana themes or sharp narratives of a Robbie Robertson, they do achieve the elusive "white soul" feel -- a combination of country rollick, spiritual fervor and bucolic blues -- that The Band (and Parsons) were hailed for.
In doing so, Trees moves several steps beyond the stylish L.A.-canyon cool of Beachwood Sparks' debut, also allowing the band's post-modern side to seep to the surface as well. And though still clearly worn on their faded denim sleeves, the band's seminal influences have been blurred together, merging fleeting snatches of the past into a single familiar barrage. To wit, "The Sun Surrounds Me," which manages to pack in a funky Garth Hudson organ riff, a chesty Stephen Stills vocal, a Brian Wilson lyric and a string-searing coda worthy of Mission of Burma, all in just under three minutes.
Tying the album together are various bits of what Scher deems "incidental music. Stuff we just kind of came up with in the studio and left in the songs or on their own."
Opening with the instrumental apéritif "Germination" -- a 30-second acoustic enticement -- the disc is rife with musical passages that leap from ominous psychedelic shudders to galloping banjo breakouts, dark keyboard drones to bright, breezy harmonyfests.
It's an aggressively experimental bent that's sure to have the band drawing fresh comparisons to an earlier generation of West Coast revivalists -- '80s Paisley Undergrounders like the Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade. Unlike those groups, though, the Beachwood Sparks' brand of jamming isn't about artistic precision -- it's more Moby Grape than Velvet Underground, less amphetamine bender than lysergic dream.
"The first time we didn't push many limits," admits Scher. "It might seem a little freer, the music on this album. We weren't as tested as a band when we recorded [Beachwood Sparks]. The whole machine was a little more subdued. With this record, we worked to change that."
Another departure evident on Treesis the band's decision to excise some of the softer sonic touches of their debut, replacing them with gospel overtones -- holy roller piano fills, moody church organ -- and heavy does of fuzz, echo and reverb, which results in far more urgent-sounding fare.
"We didn't want to compromise excitement for fidelity demands," says Scher. "We were more willing to use ridiculous amounts of echoes and to have overt effects, whereas that wasn't happening the first time. We wanted it to be exciting on the ear. I really think we wanted this one to sound crazy -- literally." And it does, as the band manages to approximate the cracked hippie melancholia of Skip Spence's landmark Oaron the acid waltz of "Let It Run" and the wandering lullaby "The Good Night Whistle."
One thing that hasn't changed is the band's steadfast adherence to a retro recording aesthetic. Along with the gorgeous time-warp efforts of Detroit's Outrageous Cherry, Beachwood Sparks is the underground band that seems most adept at making genuine sonic connections to its antecedents. Gram-o-philes will note the Sparks' country dirge "Hearts Mend" -- which rips its plip-plop drums (and title, for that matter) from Parsons' playbook. Or the piano 'n' steel swayer "By Your Side," a surprisingly earnest cover of a Sade tune, which the band turns into "Hot Burrito No. 3."
Lyrically, the Sparks' songs (mostly penned by Gunst) are typical of Parsons' oeuvre. Themes run the gamut, from the "Sin City" escapism of the aforementioned "Hearts Mend," the big-mouth blues of "Yer Selfish Ways," to the pale morning reverie of "The Hustler."
With its multiple layers, litany of rock references and expansive scope, Once We Were Trees is a kitchen sink record to be sure, yet it doesn't come off as sonic indulgence, but rather a heartfelt expression and thorough digestion of several generations of musicmaking.
"Hopefully it won't just be considered a retro thing," says Gunst. "We like old music, but we like all music, you know what I mean? All that gets filtered down into what we're doing and, hopefully, it turns out to be something original in the end."