Once We Were Trees
The VW van on the back cover and clever song titles like “Ballad of Never Rider” give you an idea of where Beachwood Sparks were coming from on their 2000 self-titled debut album. Combining the late ’60s California country/rock sound of The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, and Buffalo Springfield with a dollop of floating organ, indie pop psychedelia produced one of last year’s most acclaimed releases.
If anything, the second Beachwood Sparks record is a more original work. It’s a more assured and accomplished follow-up that plays up the band’s personality as much as their influences. It’s also a far less sunny affair with a palpable loss of innocence and stability. As on the debut, the tempos and vocals occasionally settle into a groove that gets a bit too sleepy after prolonged listening (“Close Your Eyes” and the title track come to mind). But producer Thom Monahan (Pernice Brothers) does a good job of keeping things sonically interesting.
The early Jayhawks-like “Hearts Mend” is nicely flavored by pedal steel guitar, but listen to how the organ and piano are used as well. Then let the sing-song melody and disorienting sound collage of “Let It Run” hypnotize you. The more lucid, banjo-grounded “Old Manatee,” which follows, comes as a welcome relief. Guitarist Chris Gunst’s oddball, lighter than air vocals haunt “The Hustler” while one wailing guitar stands out in the mix over the Byrds-y jangle of “Yer Selfish Ways.” The instrumental guitar workout “Juggler’s Revenge” fails to take off. It’s all jamming in search of a song. But “The Good Night Whistle” is a gently thrumming tune that massages your brain. Be careful getting up after listening to it. You may be a little dizzy. “The train is going to sleep tonight…“
The record’s biggest surprise is a cover of Sade’s adult contemp hit “By Your Side.” It’s an unlikely but inspired choice, and Beachwood Sparks make the song their own. Very nice.