By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
A couple of 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.
The group's 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 muttonchops--and taking the easy way out.
But next month, when Beachwood Sparks' Once We Were Trees hits 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, long while.
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 says 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," Scher agrees. "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 proven 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 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 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 7-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 was somehow misguidedly convinced that the Sparks had the commercial potential to be some sort of post-millennial Poco.