BEACHWOOD SPARKS “Tarnished Gold” (Subpop Records)
Gram Parsons coined the term “Cosmic American Music”
to describe a style of music he pretty much invented.
Back in the late 60s, Parsons was leaving the Byrds to form
the Flying Burrito Brothers. At the same time, former teen idol
Rick Nelson was putting together his Stone Canyon Band.
Both men pioneered a Country-Rock hybrid that paid homage
to George Jones, the Beatles , Hank Williams, Sr. and Bob Dylan
in equal measure.
Unfortunately, Cosmic American Music didn’t take flight
commercially until almost a decade later with the tepid sounds of the
But as the years progressed , both Parsons and Nelson received
posthumous critical acclaim and a sizable cult following. Clearly they inspired
the band Beachwood Sparks.
At the turn of the 20th century, vocalist/guitarist Chris Gunst,
bassist Brent Rademacher, drummer Aaron Sperske and lead guitarist
“Farmer Dave” Scher came together in Laurel Canyon to form Beachwood Sparks.
Their excellent self-titled debut was released in 2000, followed by the
equally sublime “Once We Were Trees” in 2001. Now, after a nine year hiatus (!)
the band is back with their best effort yet, “Tarnished Gold.”
The album opens with the lush and atmospheric “Forget That Song.”
Acoustic and electric guitars shimmer under Gunst’s hypnotic vocals. Appropriately,
the lyrics concern new beginnings.
The next three songs serve up the equivalent of an aural banquet.
“Sparks Fly Again” is almost an embarrassment of riches. A quick-step
rhythm anchors this tale of rekindled romance. The melody summons up
a kaleidoscope of influences. The spectral harmonies recall the Meat Puppets,
the jubilant chorus echoes the Grateful Dead’s “Touch Of Grey” and the pounding
instrumental break concludes with a soaring “Eight Miles High” guitar solo.
“Mollusk” shifts effortlessly between high lonesome verses and an
infectious chorus. A martial cadence locks everything in place.
Finally the title track blends crystalline harmonies with lachrymose
pedal-steel guitar and a galloping backbeat.
The bouncy, banjo-riffic melody on “Talk About Lonesome”
belies lyrics that equate loneliness with “A jail you can’t escape…” But
the panacea here isn’t mood altering drugs. Instead the band offers up
the irresistible combination of incandescent guitar chords and sprightly
harmonica fills.
The pace slows down on a couple of songs, “Water From The
Well” and “Nature’s Light.”
The former uses water as a metaphor to signal an emotional
epiphany: “Let it flow out like the water, like the river rejoins the sea/
Wish I could feel something, I just wanted to be free.”
The angst-y lyrics are paired with Gunst’s blissed-out vocals and
languid instrumentation.
“Nature’s Light” is a supple roundelay. A feathery light guitar
circles the melody, the lyrics a hushed evocation of our fragile eco-system.
The double-tracked vocals recall the buttery harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel.
Other standout tracks include “No Queremos Oro,”
a South Of the Border charmer, which features a Norteno flavored
melody, rippling mandolin fills and lyrics en espanol!
“Earl Jean” tethers a clip-clop gait to jangly 12 string guitar
riffs then speeds up to slightly psychedelic conclusion.
“Alone Together” is a sad sack waltz powered by a mournful
harmonica. The “hurts-so-good” lyrics revel in loneliness.
The album closes with the one-two punch of “Orange
Grass Special” and “Goodbye.” The former is a twangy hoedown
pastische that feels like the bastard child of “The Orange Blossom Special”
and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Propelled by the same boom-chicka-boom
rhythm that Johnny Cash often employed, the tune gathers speed.
Pedal-steel, Banjo, Mandolin and guitar all accelerate to a clattering finale.
“Goodbye” serves as a wistful coda to “Tarnished Gold.”
Recently Beachwood Sparks played locally to rapturous
crowds at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. Certainly
their success , along with like-minded artists such as Avett Brothers,
Mumford & Sons and Old Crow Medicine Show prove that Cosmic
American Music is alive and well. Gram Parsons and Rick Nelson
were visionaries ahead of their time.


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