Beachwood Sparks – Once We Were Trees

Beachwood Sparks
Once We Were Trees

Considering the fundamental relationship between rock and roll and country music as one of its primary building blocks, it’s somewhat strange to think how novel the idea of combining the two was to many people. Possibly just another example of how much we Americans like to compartmentalize everything in life into neat little categories, the idea of pedal steel and fuzz guitar really shouldn’t seem too outlandish. After all, Elvis Presley, the so-called original monarch of the rock empire, was himself a country boy who never shied away from injecting a little rural Southern flavor into his seminal rock hits. In that respect, rock and country have been holding hands since the start. Still, when the Byrds took their electrified Telecasters and plugged in at the Grand Ole Opry some 30 years ago, they were received rather coldly. Similarly, when Gram Parsons approached country maverick Merle Haggard to produce one of his albums, the Hag was so taken aback that he wouldn?t even answer the phone. Obviously, a lot has changed since those first awkward steps into formally creating the heading of “country-rock,” but echoes of the promise of “Cosmic American Music” (a term coined by Parsons for psychedelic country) was never completely delivered on but can be heard in bands like the Beachwood Sparks.
Of course, a major reason country-rock was received so hesitantly was in no small part due to the perceived influence of hippie values being injected into the almost sacred traditional forms. And it’s on this point that the Beachwood Sparks differ from the vast majority of the bands falling into the current alternative country movement. They aren’t rednecks or even small-towners. They are hippies. Or, at least, they speak the language fluently, with titles like “The Sun Surrounds Me” and “Once We Were Trees” and various lyrical nods to plugging into things on the cosmic cerebral plane. And with the heady mix of textures and tempos, they’re combining tie-dies and bib-overalls as well as anyone ever has.
Quite a bit sharper than last year’s excellent self-titled debut, the focus is refined into gleaming hooks, soulful arrangements, dramatic climaxes, and gorgeously sculpted sonic clouds. Multi-toned pedal steel skirt the edges of ringing organ on nearly perfect entries like “The Hustler,” with jangly Byrdsy guitars cutting straight paths through atmospheric textures. In a strange way, many of these songs have a quality not at all dissimilar from much of the output of the Olivia Tremor Control, as moody interludes cast a somewhat displaced haze on a number of tracks and unexpected squeaks and squeals add a somewhat uneasy feel. Finally exploding in a good ol’ acid rock freakout in the title-track finale, with Hendrix-ish feedback squalls and pounding drums, the Sparks kick through the barn door in a nightmare flashback.
To be honest, time has somewhat dulled the impact of the original country-rockers, as nothing (except maybe the modern songwriting perspective) was that terribly different from the more pop-oriented country of the 1960s. After all, Buck Owens had already blazed that trail a good 10 years earlier. The drums were restrained, the guitars orderly, and the vocals nasal and twangy. While the Beachwood Sparks’ harmonies are incredibly similar, with lots of creaky falsettos and ragged harmony, the musical elements are more exaggerated and expansive.
Of course, all this splitting hairs over the verities of country and rock is to miss a key ingredient of country-rock from the start – rhythm and blues. Even a casual listen to any of Gram Parsons solo work will reveal a deep admiration for soul music, and here the Beachwood Sparks show themselves able to convert their sound just as ably. No better example, their amazingly reworked rendition of Sade’s “By Your Side,” almost as slinky and sexy as the original, makes it hard to think the original could be complete without harmonica and pedal steel. Clangy banjo might pop up on tracks like the soothing “Old Manatee,” but the listener is left with the impression that these guys could start over as a blue-eyed soul band if they choose.
Strangely, today’s country music has been corrupted to such an extent as to be virtually indistinguishable from the modern pop and rock garbage that dominates their respective charts. And yet the Beachwood Sparks, doing essentially what the Flying Burrito Brothers did 30 years ago, are still outsiders. The closer rock and country have become in the popular consciousness, the farther both have gotten from their purest roots. And while it’s darn near sacrilege to suggest that this is just about as good as anything the Flying Burrito Brothers did, an honest appraisal will rank it very favorable beside those original recordings. With toes just barely touching the common soil, country music has finally ascended into the clouds, and the Beachwood Sparks have delivered on the promise of “Cosmic American Music.”