Beachwood Sparks – The Tarnished GoldPosted by Richard Potsubay
Released in 2000, the Beachwood Sparks’ debut LP was a glorious anachronism, a psychedelic campfire stew containing ingredients from recipes initially thrown together by trailblazing cosmic cowboys like the Byrds, The Buffalo Springfield, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Sporting long hair, cowboy hats, and tasseled suede jackets, the band both looked and dressed the part. But, like a group of hippies wandering into town after a thirty year acid trip in the desert, their arrival could not have come at a stranger time. The alt-rock gravy train of the early ’90s had long since left the station and the minimalist rock revival propelled by The White Stripes was two years away. No one quite knew what to make of them. Many critics were dismissive, citing the band as derivative (“a country rock Apples in Stereo”) and the alt-country movement- who should have been their biggest ally- largely ignored them. Still, enough folks “got it” to provide incentive for the band to record a follow-up in 2002, Once We Were Trees. An EP followed a year later, but that was pretty much it. Aside from an appearance at Sub Pop’s 20th anniversary concert in 2008, the band sat out the rest of the ’00s. Though they never officially announced a break-up, much of their fan base (which had grown considerably since the early days) wondered if the Beachwoods would ever be back. The Tarnished Gold, their first full-length in ten years, answers that question.
Though the Beachwoods haven’t strayed too far from the down-home formula they established on their debut, The Tarnished Gold reveals a few subtle changes, all of them inevitable and most of them welcome. This stylistic arc is mirrored visually in the album cover artwork of the band’s three records. Their debut, with its colorful kaleidoscopic landscape painting, reflected the lysergic, sunny pop within. Once We Were Trees, with its more subtly trippy drawing of the band’s noggins sprouting forth from a patch of greenery, was indicative of a more organic and rootsy sensibility. The Tarnished Gold’s cover, with its gold-embossed title in a black box set against a background the color of desert sand, is no less revealing. Though still containing some of the familiar stoner cowpoke quirks, The Tarnished Gold is generally a less flashy and more understated affair than previous efforts. It’s the work of a band, still faithful to the vintage twang of its forefathers, now enamored with the simple joy of making music together as friends after so many years.
Nowhere is this joy more palpable and infectious than on “Sparks Fly Again”. Beginning with a soaring pedal steel over a chugging rhythm section, the band’s wonderful trademark harmonies aren’t far behind: “Days roll by/the sea is dreaming across tide/tide rolls in/brings me back together with my friends”. After the rousing chorus, “Don’t stop/we’re gonna spark it”, there’s a swell of chanted harmonies, compressed 12-string guitars, and a host of otherworldly analogue effects. It’s that classic “Beachwood Sparks moment”, a life-affirming rave-up that can only be found in their music. Hallucinatory and transcendent, it’s something the band can still pull off effortlessly after all these years. While such moments of sonic intensity were more frequent on the earlier albums, they are less so here. Still, when they make their presence known, they’re more than welcome; it’s as if the band never went away.
Most of the album’s other rewards can be found in the songwriting, which is more sharpened and consistent than some of the band’s earlier work. The title track continues to uphold the album’s themes of reconciliation and reunion: “Funny when you find what you’re looking for/it was already there”. It’s short and sweet, and with its tender country picking and plucked banjo, it goes down like a mint julep on a warm July evening. Even the material that traverses darker terrain still showcases a close attention to craftsmanship. “Talk About Lonesome” is a classic post-breakup ballad of self-loathing lament: “Don’t feel like talking to myself/empty bottle sitting’ on the shelf/rain beatin’ down on the roof like a lonely drunk/and that’s a jail you can’t escape from”. With its accompanying slide steel guitar and hammond organ fills that sound like chirping crickets in the dead of night, its a small masterpiece that easily holds its own among the best work of Gram Parsons. However, its distinct senses of character and humor ensure that it is a song that belongs solely to the Beachwoods.
This isn’t to say that The Tarnished Gold is without its missteps. “No Quremos Oros” is a Spanish singalong dirge. It’s something one would expect to accompany an enchilada plate at a Mexican restaurant, but it seems out of place here. “The Orange Glass Special” is a gospel number with some shades of the Statler Brothers that would wear out its welcome if it was any longer. It’s not that these throwaways are embarrassing, they’re just unnecessary; while such corn pone gimmickry has worked well for other country rock acts, it’s never been the Beachwoods’ thing. The Tarnished Gold more often than not reminds listeners what this band is capable of, and the fluff only serves to distract from from this focused brilliance.
Despite these minor shortcomings, The Tarnished Gold is a welcome- and long overdue- return to form. But the question remains: Is it the last hurrah of the Beachwoods before they ride off into the sunset again, this time for good? The final track, “Goodbye”, is an unsettling suggestion that it might be. But regardless of whether the album represents a new or final chapter in the Beachwood’s history, it is a vital addition to their distinguished body of work, and to recorded music as a whole.