Weighing the Tarnished Gold (Beachwood Sparks)
by NJ McGarrigle
In my mid-teens, after Kurt Cobain depressingly abdicated his throne as the king of alternative music, I steered down the musical road of the Byrds and Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd somewhat gratefully.
I willingly dropped out of the grunge scene after the melancholic martyr brigade hijacked Nirvana and the supremely talented, but ultimately tragic and unwilling leader of a generation, Cobain. These people, in their ‘Kurt RIP’ T-shirts and MTV Unplugged CDs, looked at me with puzzlement when I maintained that Bleach was Nirvana’s best album. For me it is (still) the purest expression of the band’s punk-infused spirit. The Unplugged album is a great one for sure, but it was never what Nirvana was about. So I backed off and sought new musical directions.
I embraced the brave new worlds of electronica, hip-hop and jazz wholeheartedly. I also heard Eight Miles High by the Byrds for the first time and it blew my mind. Digging deeper with the Byrds led me to Love, Moby Grape, early Grateful Dead, and the Floyd’s first two albums: I loved Interstellar Overdrive in particular (was this the first post-rock record, as dreadful as that genre tag may be?).
The Byrds went country and I chose to follow happily with Gram, Gene, CSN&Y et al but I also wanted to find a contemporary band making this psychedelic country rock too, so that maybe I could see this type of music performed live. I scouted around the some times fruitless terrain of music magazines but eventually found an outpost where it looked like I hang up my saddle: Beachwood Sparks. Arriving here was like seeing the old country, Americana, whatever you choose to call it, through a kaleidoscope.
Beachwood Sparks’ music, if not the natural heir to the Byrds, at least channelled a continuation of the 60s band’s spirit, especially the Notorious Byrds Brothers album. Spark’s excellent debut LP Desert Skies (2000) sounded fabulous; it still does. It’s the essence of sunshine, open roads, sunglasses and sun cream, and trips to the beach with friends.
That West Coast sound pours from your speakers: gorgeous harmonies, jangly guitars, sweet lyrics about the sea, trees, stars and love and enough slide guitar for you to wear your alt. country Stetson with pride. (Each time I listen to the record, I also hear a post-Beatles George Harrison influence too, although I’ve not seen any of the band mention him in interviews.) Desert Skies is happiness captured on 12” of vinyl and an impressive debut for any band to make.
One year later Sparks released their polished sophomore effort Once We Were Trees, produced by Thom Monahan, and had the added treat of J Mascis playing on a couple of tunes. The LP saw the band expanding their sound further and cutting loose a little too. Once We Were Trees is one of my all-time favourite albums: a lovely, heady cocktail, with a little kick of everything thrown in for good measure: reverb, drones, echoes and languid phrasing.
There is diversity and ambition throughout the album: for example you could imagine Willie Nelson covering Hearts Mend, while the playing on rocking You Take the Gold sounds like the band just picked it up and kicked it out first time, punk style; then there are slow, spacey jams like Let It Roll and The Goodnight Whistle to contrast the more traditional alt. country sounds of Banjo Press Conference and Old Manatee. One of my standout tracks is The Hustler, which could well be Beachwood Sparks playing their own song, as a cover version of a song by another of my favourite groups, The Band. The music is the sound of connection: the album is soaked in Bourbon that has been spiked with LSD.
An EP followed, Make the Cowboy Robots Cry, and although it has some moments, it sounded like a band wanting to go in four different directions at the same time.
Consequently, the trip stopped. Sparks went on hiatus and took time to work on various other projects – The Tyde, Nobody and the Mystic Chords of Memory, All Night Radio, Dntel to name just a few. These were admirable adventures in hi-fi and lo-fi. They showcased the idiosyncratic talents that made up Beachwood Sparks, but – just like when Levon, Rick, Garth, Richard and Robbie went their own ways – the magic that made them stand out from the crowd was no longer there.
I regretted never getting to see them play live either and as each year passed with no news about a reunion I tried somewhat to forget about them, filing Beachwood Sparks in my music collection with Skip Spence and Syd Barrett, with the knowledge that there would be no more treasure to be found, and appreciate what they had left behind.
Then the Tarnished Gold surfaced, seemingly out of nowhere, bubbling up like an old shipwreck on the shore, packed with glittering gems of songs.
Beachwood Sparks were back and the world seemed a little lighter again.
I started out intending to write a review of the album, but it doesn’t need one, the more I think about it; just go buy it. From the fifth or sixth spin you will have the Tarnished Gold on repeat. The beautiful simplicity of the songs and shimmering melodies will have you hooked. The music has an elegiac, more mature quality now too – which is natural the guys being ten years older – yet it hasn’t lost any its original innocence and is still rooted in joy and the wonder of the natural world surrounding us (Monahan is back in the producer’s chair too).
Each time I listen to the LP, I have a new favourite song, but I think the Tarnished Gold’s crowning jewel is Alone Together: Chris Gunst’s vocal performance is one of his best ever, fragile and tender, while the repetitive refrain and song structure lifts it into a thing of beauty.
It is a triumphant return after a decade long hiatus. To borrow one of their track titles: Sparks fly again. Long may it continue.