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Beachwood Sparks

by Mike Hotter on July 26, 2012

THE TARNISHED GOLD
One of the first post-grunge bands to pick up on what dudes like Gene Clark and Gram Parsons were putting down (namely, a soulful melding of country, folk and rock that some have dubbed Cosmic American Music), the Sparks’ first release in a decade is a relaxed immersion in that paisley-patchouli aesthetic. Many bands before and since have worked this particular musical furrow, but the Sparks have always seemed to inhabit this sound effortlessly. The skillful and subtly heart-on-sleeve songwriting of Brent Rademaker (bass) and Chris Gunst (guitar) saves the band from being solely an exercise in pastiche, while skilled pickers like Neal Casal and Dan Horne help liven things up on the guitar-thrill front. Perhaps most importantly, their harmony singing is second-to-none.

 

Album openers “Forget the Song” and “Sparks Fly Again” are probably the hookiest songs the Sparks have ever come up with, and while it’s great to hit the audience with a one-two punch right at the start, those looking for more hooks will find some to complain about here.

Gunst can sometimes be accused of being a bit too precious in his delivery, and a couple of his contributions tread too deeply into the realm of soft rock for my tastes. He manages to balance those forays with a few genuinely great songs: “Water From the Well” is soft-rock done right (a loping rhythm reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Fearless” and more forceful singing help immensely), while “Nature’s Light” is a touching rumination on life and love that Elliott Smith might have come up with if he had someday been able to find peace. The title track is about as perfect a country-rock song that’s been written in the last 20 years.

Toward the record’s end lurks “No Queremos Oro,” a psychedelic Mariachi number (sung in Spanish, with a slightly stoned spoken-word translation) that brings some welcome humor to the proceedings, while  Rademaker rocks things up a bit with the rousing numbers “Earl Jean” and “The Orange Grass Special” (the former will be a particular pleasure for fans of early Wilco). “Leave the Light On” takes a journey into the luminous world hinted at by Peter Green’s “Albatross,” while the closing “Goodbye” bids a fond farewell to a friend, and perhaps the audience.

Beachwood Sparks have opted to not try to reinvent themselves but stick to their strength, a slightly dazed, always-mellow country-soul. While The Tarnished Gold is, on average, a bit too “one-tone” to qualify as a great album, it may very well wind up being a classic of its kind.