When a band goes on “hiatus” and then goes ghost for ten years without a peep, it’s usually assumed that that gap isn’t going to end anytime soon. That said, there’s always an exception to the rule, and LA quartet Beachwood Sparks are back after a nearly 11 year hiatus with The Tarnished Gold. Those worried about the huge amount of time spent apart shouldn’t worry; the spacey country rock here is the type the band’s always worked with, a sort of timeless melodiousness, a breeze that floats from one era to another.
Early in the album, “Sparks Fly Again” acts as a sort of mythic re-introduction for the four musicians. “Time rolls in/ brings me back together with my friends,” they croon out over slide guitar twang, tom rolls, and ethereal backing vocals. The whole thing sounds like a pitch-perfect Grateful Dead homage, complete with a brief jammy moment. The shimmering, splashy “Leave That Light On” shows exactly how Beachwood Sparks were ahead of their time in many ways, predating the freak folk movement while simultaneously using many of its same trademarks. The difference between this album and other freak folkers (early Animal Collective, say, or Devendra Banhart) is the absolute faithfulness in the tone.
Tracks like the dark, shadowy “Mollusk” or the breezy sing-along of “Forget the Song” could be slipped directly into an AM radio playlist without much confusion, and therein lies much of the appeal of Beachwood Sparks. The Tarnished Gold takes listeners back to the point of the band’s strengths (2001’s When We Were Trees), but also further back to the era of the Byrds or Buffalo Springfield.
The key word for this album is pretty. Even the weaker moments (the overlong slow-burner “Nature’s Light” or the loping balladry of “Alone Together”) feature lushly beautiful vocal harmonies, precise drumming, gorgeous acoustic strumming, and the ever-present slide guitar. But when these trademarks work, the band finds itself in strong company. The haunting harmonies, twang, and cabin in the woods imagery and emotionalism of “Water from the Well” would be indebted to Fleet Foxes– if only Beachwood Sparks hadn’t been doing this same thing long before.
Essential Tracks: “Leave that Light On”