When a band is compared favorably to the holy trinity of West Coast hippie rock (The Byrds, The Buffalo Springfield, The Flying Burrito Brothers) I get really excited, because those are three of my favorite bands. I would say that nary a day goes by that I don’t listen to at least one of those bands (much to the chagrin of my wife, my kids, my co-workers, and random people that sit in traffic next to me.)
Of course, I also get quite apprehensive when bands are compared to the holy trinity, because that’s setting the bar unrealistically high. Who could ever live up to that comparison?
Then again, this is America, the land where we wrap our Taco Bell in Doritos. If anyone could figure out how to improve up the most perfect hippie rock ever created, it’s us.
So are the Beachwood Sparks, as represented on their new album The Tarnished Gold, the fulfillment of the cosmic American dream?
First, let’s dissect exactly what we mean by hippie rock or “Cosmic American Music” – a term invented by Gram Parsons to describe his specific musical vision.
The Flying Burrito Brothers, on their landmark debut The Gilded Palace of Sin, brought Gram’s vision fully to life with the addition of a rhythm and blues backbeat (courtesy of Chris Ethridge) to traditional country music with rock-oriented lyrics. The sound is dominated by Sneaky Pete Kleinow’s pedal steel guitar and Gram Parsons’ harmonies with Chris Hillman. In short: country + R&B + pedal steel + harmonies.
The Buffalo Springfield were a combustible unit defined by the separate visions of their leaders, unified for an all-too-brief time. Stephen Stills brought the blues, Latin influence and guitar virtuosity. Neil Young brought eclectic electrified folk and emotive garage rock. Richie Furay brought country influences and a level of polish to both vocals and arrangement. In short: folk + blues + a smidge of country.
The Byrds were one of the three most important bands in the development of rock and roll. They popularized folk-rock, psychedelic-rock, and country-rock. They mixed Roger McGuinn’s jangly 12 string guitar with Chris Hillman’s fluid bass playing, David Crosby’s jazzy weirdness and stellar harmony vocals, and Gene Clark’s great pop tunes. In short: folk + psychedelia + harmonies + country.
So, for a band to be considered “cosmic American music” they need to offer spacey countrified folk rock featuring harmonies and, hopefully, some pedal steel guitar.
Kind of like Beachwood Sparks.
The Tarnished Gold is a new release, coming 11 years after their last album. I’m pretty sure that I saw them open up for The Black Crowes many years ago, but let’s be honest: my track record with catching and remembering opening acts is pretty abysmal.
I recently stumbled upon this album while looking for modern music that sounds like old hippie rock. It would seem to be an easy task to find more bands that sound like the old bands I love, but something always seems to be missing with the Fleet Foxes and Dawes of the world. It’s not that they’re not talented bands. It’s just that the popular modern folk-rockers are too earnest and not weird enough for my tastes. I need a little freaky spacey vibe going on to keep me interested.
And I always need quality songs. Underneath the playing and the arrangements there has to be a melody-driven song that provides the launch pad for exploration. It’s the difference between jam bands and rock bands that jam. I love a good jam, but it’s got to be rooted in a strong song.
Well, folks, I’m happy to report that The Tarnished Gold delivers quite a few excellent tunes.
The opener, “Forget this Song” has a dreamy vibe that effectively sets the tone for the album. Understated pedal-steel and tasteful harmonies feel both lush and sparse. “Sparks Fly Again” features a fun chorus that feels like The Beach Boys on (more) acid and a nice trippy guitar solo. “Mollusk” effectively alternates between the yearning pedal steel and martial-sounding drums. “Tarnished Gold” is a very sweet, mature ballad. The brilliant arrangement of “Water from the Well” washes over the listener, flowing like the tides, reinforcing the lyrics. “Talk About Lonesome” features some real nice pickin’ subtly buried in the mix, blending the pedal steel with banjo, acoustic guitar and even some harmonica. I’d like to hear what they could do with that one live. “Leave That Light On” returns the album to the dominant mellow vibe. “Nature’s Light” is a delicate song based on a nice acoustic guitar progression. “No Queremos Oro” is a fun novelty song that is reminiscent of a Mexican narcocorrido tune. “Earl Jean” is another effective tune that balances a wistful verse with an upbeat chorus. “Alone Together” starts with a simple harmonica riff and evolves into a beautiful song with an addictive melody. “The Orange Grass Special” is another quality upbeat tune with bluegrass influences. Finally, “Goodbye” is a pleasant and slight lullaby, a fitting end to the song cycle.
So back to the original question: are the Beachwood Sparks the second coming of The Burrito Brothers, The Springfield or The Byrds?
Of course not. Like I said earlier, that’s an entirely unfair comparison. The Springfield featured three legitimate rock and roll legends when they were bursting with energy and ideas. The Burritos created one of the most original, amazing albums in the history of music. The Byrds changed the world three times.
But the Beachwood Sparks are an excellent band that is obviously influenced by the holy trinity without being mere imitators. I’d say that the closest comparison for The Tarnished Gold is The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Both possess a dreamy quality and a consistent vibe throughout the album, while the individual tunes feature experimentation and variation.
The Tarnished Gold is an excellent album by a talented band of players and songwriters and I highly recommend it to any and all fans of hippie rock.
Forget the Song: 4
Sparks Fly Again: 4
Tarnished Gold: 4
Water from the Well: 4
Talk About Lonesome: 3
Leave That Light On: 3
Nature’s Light: 3
No Queremos Oro: 3
Earl Jean: 3
Alone Together: 4
The Orange Grass Special: 3
The Tarnished Gold: 3.5 (out of 4)