Release Date: Nov 26, 2013
Record label: Alive Naturalsound Records
Genre(s): Country, Alt-Country, Americana, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Pop, Neo-Psychedelia, Alternative Country-Rock
After last year’s surprise return after 10 years on the sidelines, Beachwood Sparks have another unexpected treasure to unearth for fans. Recorded in 1997 with the original sextet, Desert Skies is technically the Sparks’ debut, a glimpse into the infancy of the psych-country outfit. The heavy chords of the album-opening title track are a surprising jolt, yet maintain the same breezy Laurel Canyon harmonies for which the band later became known.
This belated release of some of the first Beachwood Sparks recordings, from the time when the band was a six-piece, offers an intriguing and instructive comparison with the later more consciously-fashioned Laurel Canyonesque material. While never raw, Desert Skies is certainly less reverential than later albums, and if occasionally one senses that some ideas could have been developed more ambitiously (for example in “Make It Together”, two versions of which appear here), there is an undoubted freshness and an uncontrived optimism that pervades the whole work. Tracks like “Time”, in both versions here, have a youthful drive, with echoes of Neil Young’s ferocious “Like A Hurricane” guitar sound.
The story of Beachwood Sparks is written across three albums of psychedelic Americana, a distinctly West Coast sound in the heralded tradition of The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers. Now comes the prequel, an unexpected batch of long-shelved recordings that show the band less reliant on laid-back harmonies and bristling with more rock energy. It may be no surprise to find the band at its wildest, loosest and most varied in the first phase of a trajectory that mellowed significantly in the course of three Sub Pop albums, but what marks Desert Skies as much as its distinct sound is the quality of its songs.
The album version of "Desert Skies" is sure to find these cosmic Americans keeping those good vibrations happening. But on this original recording, the song is about half the tempo and Beachwood Sparks plays it out to its fullest, laid-back, psychedelic, Gram Parsons and Big Star-infused, California sound, complete with '70s solos. "Make It Together," the B-side, is filled with crunching garage pop goodness.
When Beachwood Sparks released its eponymous debut on Sub Pop back in 2000, the band seemed to have emerged fully formed. Sure, it had put out a couple of singles, releasing “Desert Skies” b/w “Make It Together” in 1998 and the “Midsummer Daydream” single as part of Sub Pop’s singles club in 1999. By the time of its first full release, the band seemed to have its psych-country-pop sound figured out, yanking the reins from the memory of Gram Parsons and riding off into the desert sunset.
Before they joined forces in the mid 1990s, the members of Beachwood Sparks 1.0 were in a lot of bands that didn’t sound anything like Beachwood Sparks. Bassist Brent Rademaker was in Further, who sounded so much like Sonic Youth that Lee Ranaldo guested on their debut. Josh Schwartz and Tom Sanford were in an act called Winter Kills that cribbed its slack from Pavement, while Chris Gunst did time in the horribly named hardcore band Strictly Ballroom (which also featured Jimmy Tamborello).
Beachwood Sparks are nostalgic at their core. Hazily sung psych pop and country rock melodies evoke the halcyon days of late ’60s and early ’70s Los Angeles rock, a “Laurel Canyon” sound codified by the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Jackson Browne, and others. Considering this nostalgic thrust, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Beachwood Sparks would reach into their own past to present their latest work.
It’s often a mixed bag when bands dig out their first, previously unreleased studio tracks and thrust them upon the public. But in the case of Beachwood Sparks, these “lost” recordings are generally better than anything the band has done since. The Los Angeles-based psychedelic country-rock band has made some acclaimed albums for Sub Pop, but these 15-year-old, unmastered tracks from the vault are rawer and more fun, harder-rocking and less meticulously crafted.
Back in 1997, six musicians met at the intersection of Beachwood Dr. and Sparks St. in L.A. to form the psychedelic country rock band, Beachwood Sparks. In their early rehearsals they created the record that could’ve been the band’s first LP, and then shelved it for sixteen years. I know ….