Rocks Great, Un-Ironic Hope
You may one day find yourself face to face with a picture of Silver Lake's boyish four-piece Beachwood Sparks, all of them impeccably dressed in the finest of '70s country-and-western polyester, the fringes of their shaggy postmod haircuts skimming the edges of their decorated collars. And while gazing upon the photograph, you may also be listening to their debut CD, with its explosion of retro-riffic art featuring butterflies, rainbows, fractalesque designs and a VW bus and its shimmery music, which is equally retro-riffic with smooth, summery harmonies, a loping gait and a psychedelic countryish jangle that suggests just about every California-and-beyond band from that time period: the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, the Grateful Dead and even Neil Young. And while listening to the CD and gazing lovingly at the photo, you may also be reading some berwhimsical interview in which the youngish musicians claim their sound results from the local topography and the rich history of California music they're steeped in. And you may find yourself asking, "Are they fucking for real?"
But before you write them off, know one thing: Beachwood Sparks are going to be huge. They already are in a barely under-the-radar kind of way, and they've been garnering a buzz for some time now. And not just any buzz, but rather a wide-eyed, reverential, beatific buzz. A buzz that suggests not mere fans, but converts. A buzz that makes jaded clubgoers at Silver Lake's Spaceland whisper, "Hey, that's the guy from Beachwood Sparks!" Plus, in case they weren't already pickling in a vat of indie cred, Beck hand-picked them to open some of his shows, as did Sebadoh's Lou Barlow.
But I just can't shake the feeling that something's wrong here. I mean, come on! California mysticism—good vibes, the sound of the ocean slapping the shore, the smell and feel of the canyon, the majesty of the mountains, mind expansion—haven't we been here already? Like, 30 years ago? Have I just grown so rock-hard, cynical and jaded that I can't receive the good vibes? Are my good-vibe receptors clogged? By the stick up my ass? Has my mellow been irreparably harshed?
Who still finds this magic in LA?
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Beachwood Sparks do. On "Desert Skies," the lead track from their eponymous album to be released on Sub Pop at the end of March, vocalist/guitarist Chris Gunst introduces a city-equals-bad, country-equals-good philosophy that pops up in a number of their songs: "Desert skies kept me dry from the city rain. . . ./If you were here, then you would feel the same. . . ./You know that it's the feeling you're missing, don't you?/Just take it as it comes, don't worry yourself, won't you?"
Formed by members of respected indie bands Further, Strictly Ballroom and the Lilys, Beachwood Sparks are honing in on some charmed aspect of Laurel Canyon culture that may perhapsstill exist. But if it does, it exists in a form so slight that you really have to scrunch your eyes up tight to see it. But with a tunnel-visioned gusto, Beachwood Sparks suggest that's the dominant Southern California experience.
If they realize that the reality they're presenting differs in large part from the reality the rest of us know, they don't let on. There's no distance here. No ironic self-consciousness. No acknowledgment that the groovy scene they're embodying seems naive to us world-weary millennialists, or that it ebbed and flowed before many of them (and us) were born.
Maybe, in these cynical times, we're made uncomfortable by art that doesn't point to and apologize for its own artistry, that doesn't beat us to the punch by analyzing and standing apart from itself to comment on its necessary distortions.
Beachwood Sparks, you see, are not some sort of kitschy send-up, nor are they making a tongue-in-cheek statement. There's no wink. No nudge. Theirs is a shtick that has no shtick, which is doubly disconcerting—disconcerting on its own merits, and then disconcerting that we find it so disconcerting. And because there's no chink in their retro armor, they're being heralded as indie rock's new un-ironic hope.
It's hard to deny the tug of their sincerity. But still, there's this nagging sense that something's afoul. What they've done is resurrect a sound without acknowledging doing so, and then they take it one step further. Though they deny it's premeditated, the band simulates the mindset and cultural factors that initially produced the sound they're re-producing. When New Times writer Sara Scribner interviewed the band, she found bassist Brent Rademaker immersed in a 1973 Creem magazine article about whether the Eagles destroyed California rock. "He almost sounds as if the Eagles question . . . is still raging [today]," Scribner wrote.
Well, trip out on that!
But really, if the conditions present in 2000 are generating the same music that was generated in the '70s, that suggests something gravely wrong with today's culture. Which is why there's something odious about Beachwood Sparks' un-ironic embrace of all things '70s.
Because it's not the '70s, you can't find the sense of wonder and innocence Beachwood Sparks claim to have. We already know what happened to the '70s. Those mystical roads led to coked-out, self-indulgent, feathery-haired, hypocritical, overblown, myth-shattering, crappy VH-1 Behind the Music butt rock. Not to mention a whole culture of Me-ism. The '70s led to bloated people and bloated music, and then to punk. We've already seen the end of this movie, and it's impossible to watch the beginning and forget that we already know how it ends.
Which is too bad because the music of Beachwood Sparks is actually pretty great, beautifully layered, catchy and accomplished, featuring effects that sound more like video-game noises than anything used by the bands they're re-interpreting.
To be honest, I love the album. The harmonies are exquisite. The melodies make me cry. The songs stick in my head. If only I could leave it there. If only I could slam the door before the torrents of associated crap come rushing in. But I can't.
Of course, that might just be the stick up my ass talking.
Beachwood Sparks play with the Green and Yellow TV at Que Sera, 1923 E. 7th St., Long Beach, (562) 599-6170. Sat., 9 p.m. Call for cover. 21+.
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