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The Tarnished Gold
by Matt Gonzales (8-4-2)
I spent the past weekend at a friend’s weekend home on the border of Bartholomew and Brown Counties, Indiana. Located on the edge of the Hoosier National forest, it’s a beautiful yet unnervingly solitary place for a city dude like me. So, as is my habit, I turned to music to make it all better.
I didn’t want to shatter the silence. I just wanted to infuse it with just the right kind of color and light. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the perfect songs to accomplish that until I returned home to a copy of Beachwood Sparks’ The Tarnished Gold.
Beachwood Sparks’ first two records, released in 2000 and 2001 respectively, wooed indie rock fans with a warm, spacey country sound heavily indebted to Laurel Canyon legends like Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds. More than a decade later, Beachwood Sparks has returned with an album that sounds like the one they would have released in 2002 if they had bothered to keep making records back then.
I heard a rumor that the main reason for the band’s hiatus was simple laziness. I have no idea if that’s true. But it is true that their music sounds like it’s made by people who couldn’t be bothered to care about much more than soaking in some West Coast sunshine, perhaps while enjoying some high-grade California-grown cannabis.
Yet there is a sense of sadness in their songs, and it’s more pronounced here than on either of their earlier albums. The finest songs on The Tarnished Gold explore, in a wonderfully oblique way, themes of death, regret and longing. Gorgeous album-opener “Forget the Song” opens with guitarist Chris Gunst singing “It’s time to stop pretending / those days are gone,” referring both to the band’s auspicious early days, and, one imagines, its members’ erstwhile youth.
The Tarnished Gold‘s greatest strength is not its lush harmonies or winsome guitar interplay (both of which are here in spades), but rather its success at making gut-wrenching existential sorrow sound so soothingly tuneful. Come to think of it, maybe the California band these guys really aim to emulate is the one whose name starts out with the same first five letters as their own. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
by Chris Overpeck (4-8-1)
It’s been ten years since Beachwood Sparks last released new music. As an avid fan (I pushed hard for their brilliant cover of Sade’s ”By Your Side” to be the first dance at my wedding [I lost]), it’s been a long decade. To be clear, Beachwood Sparks were never going to achieve mainstream success, but they were ahead of their time and could have certainly expanded their audience had they not disappeared after just a few years as an active band. With two LPs and one EP to their name, they split off into four separate, excellent and very distinct projects (Mystic Chords of Memory, The Tyde, All Night Radio, and Frausdots).
In 2008, Beachwood Sparks reunited for Sub Pop’s 20th anniversary festival, as well as a string of West Coast tour dates. This sparked the recording of The Tarnished Gold, which finds Beachwood Sparks picking up basically where they left off. Combining delicate folk, lush harmonies, and subtle melodies, Beachwood Sparks are often aptly compared to The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. While they could never be called original, their Californian heritage and probable heavy drug use manifests itself in a psychedelia that has been otherwise absent from the alt-country movement.
Upon first listen, the first two songs on The Tarnished Gold are the most satisfying. “Forget the Song” could have easily been written ten years ago (this, by the way, illustrates the timelessness of their music). “Sparks Fly Again” is reminiscent of The Grateful Dead (in the best possible way). After this, things slow down and require a little more patience. The lyrical content is similar to their old ways (“hope that spring melts the winter in my heart”), but there’s a downbeat melancholy here that can only be attributed to their older age. This album feels less like a comeback attempt and more like a gift to those of us who have waited ten years for a subtle beauty that is altogether too rare in modern music.