Mellowing Your Harsh
Brent Rademaker was somewhere in Rhode Island, wishing he were home.
"Oh, I can't wait to get back to California!" whined Rademaker, bassist with the LA-based Beachwood Sparks.
But in some ways, he and the band are always home. Beachwood Sparks are vintage California country-rock post-hippie mellow without a glimmer of irony. Last year, their first (eponymous) album was adorned with such early 1970s California rock references as rainbows, poofy white clouds, VW buses, shimmering sunsets on the ocean, butterflies and vaguely psychedelic fractal foolery. The music was so faithful to their obvious influences that the group seemed on the verge of becoming a tribute band.
If anything, Beachwood Sparks' new album, Once We Were Trees, digs deeper into California rock even while it pushes the music in new directions.
"I think people are starting to recognize that there's more to us than that West Coast Burrito Brothers thing, that maybe before, people thought we were some sort of novelty act," deduces Rademaker. "But now people are picking up on the more contemporary sounds on our songs and stuff." Stuff like the occasional electronic farting about or the guitar diddling of Beachwood Sparks fan J Mascis, who guests on a couple of Trees tracks.
Though tired of the Burrito Brothers comparisons, Beachwood Sparks invites them. Band members sport moppy hair, Western shirts and the occasional cowboy hat. The artwork on their new album is heavy with flower-power touches and back-to-the-garden imagery—check that here-we-are-among-the-poppies-and-bushes-and-dandelions pose they strike in the CD book, which recalls the cover of Creedence Clearwater's Green River album, as well as a slew of similar nature-lovin'-band promotional photos from the late '60s. The front jacket artwork—with the band members' heads scrunched together in a beautiful love-in—is a near duplication of the cover of Love's Forever Changes, perhaps the seminal California-rock album of the era. Last year at a club show in Long Beach, Beachwood Sparks' more original, poppier elements were abandoned in favor of a full-on country approach. The band produced a breeze of sublime, beer-stained, stretched-out notes and winsome pedal steels—a bit weary, beaten-down, depressed, dreamy, even heroin-y, but great music all the same.
The band isn't entirely driven by fuzzy-headed California clichs. Their lyrics are only happy and giddy about half the time; the other half is gloom and doom, including these uplifters from Trees: "The sun surrounds me/And all I'm seeing/Are the dark times" and "Just one more day/Then I have to say/We're all in for the big goodbye." On the tune "Close Your Eyes," singer Chris Gunst croons about wanting to be carried away to a place he'd rather be. Assuming he's not talking about, oh, Stanton, it must be heaven or some other like-minded paradise.
Ahhh, but let's not read too deeply here. Beachwood Sparks are more about sound and feel rather than wordplay, borrowing from the Flying Burrito Brothers/Gram Parsons/Sweetheart of the Rodeo school of countrified rock. It's peppered with lush Beach Boys harmonies, layered effects, Hammond B-3 organ swaths, wispy harmonica huffing and twang-ang-ang pedal steel—the kind of stuff you'd swear just wasn't hip anymore. But the band's proudly retro approach has won them a decent-sized chunk of fans—and some high-profile ones, too, like Beck. Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes (a band that knows something about retro grooves) asked Beachwood Sparks to open a string of shows for them back East, which is how Rademaker found himself in Rhode Island. This week, the band returns for a stretch of local gigs, including a Wednesday night show at Chain Reaction.
It's music that makes dreary, drizzly afternoons seem brighter and more bearable. Music for lonely drives into desert sunrises. Music that actually makes Sade sound perky (they cover the Queen of Sominex's "By Your Side" on Trees). Music for writing newspaper articles on Beachwood Sparks at 3 a.m. while the homeless guy is wigging out in the park across the street—Hey! You wanna shut the fuck up out there? Music for mellowing your harsh. Music that would make Gram Parsons grin, whether Beachwood Sparks like it or not.
Beachwood Sparks perform with Love As Laughter and the Glands at Chain Reaction, 1652 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 635-6067. Wed., 7:30 p.m. $8. All ages.
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