In 2012, it was eleven years since Beachwood Sparks’ last full album and, despite a reunion in 2008 for Sub Pop’s 20th anniversary, new music from the Los Angeles group seemed unlikely. When ‘The Tarnished Gold’ was released, however, it was as if they had never been away. The band slipped easily back into their dreamily cosmic sound, a sound so lost in time that the album is like a musical time capsule, hidden away in the 1960s or ’70s and rediscovered in pristine condition decades later. That said, this is not just a tribute to the sounds of the past. ‘The Tarnished Gold’ is a collection of beautifully formed and crafted songs that exude quality and add to and enhance the jangling psychedelic branch of americana that includes the likes of Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds. Perhaps it’s the songwriting maturity that came with the band members’ extended break from one another but, for me, this is the Sparks’ best record, their most complete, balanced set of songs, the album where all their influences come together and their ethereal sonic-journeying is pitched and timed just right.
The classic lineup all returned for this record: Brent Rademaker (vocals, bass), Chris Gunst (vocals, guitar), Aaron Sperske (drums) and the talented multi-instrumentalist Farmer Dave Scher. A host of other great players supported, including Dan Horne on pedal steel, the band’s first drummer Jimi Hey, guitarist Neal Casal (Ryan Adams & The Cardinals) and Ariel Pink. Together, they blend and layer beautiful instrumentation and produce gorgeous, uplifting harmonies. As a side note, you can still fly into psychedelic space with Dave Scher, California-style, with his fabulous new band Farmer Dave and the Wizards of the West.
Album-opener ‘Forget the Song’ begins with a tuneful strum before the lilting first words: “It’s time to stop pretending // Those days, those days are gone…Forget the song that I’ve been singing // Lay down the weight that I’ve been holding // Hope that spring melts the winter in my heart.” Immediately, the listener is drawn into the conflict between nostalgia and the need to move on. As in many of these songs, the sweeping sense of time shifting swims through it and, by the end, the bittersweet notes are left adrift on currents of memory and feeling, scattering to the musical horizon. Next, the pace changes up for ‘Sparks Fly Again’, which is an anthem for themselves, for rediscovery: “Music is a home to return to // Sparks fly again for you…Singing of a love we thought we’d lost.” And how they fly again on this song. It’s upbeat and bursting with an energetic freedom, a laid-back looseness, full of swirling guitars and impressive, soaring vocal harmonies. The songs continue to be enchanting and atmospheric, such as the title track, with winding pedal steel and other instrumental layers: there’s more to find on every listen.
‘Water From the Well’ and ‘Leave That Light On’ offer the best kind of balladry, both quietly and utterly absorbing and atmospheric. Other highlights are the more country-influenced sounds of ‘Talk About Lonesome’ and ‘Earl Jean’. The latter pulses with compelling percussion and bass, over which jangling guitar is released into the cosmos as the band harmonise: “I love a happy ending,” and it feels just so right that the Sparks came back together to write a proper musical ending to their story. They are rhythmic songs that make you sway but, most of all, they ooze harmonic joy and sumptuous melody. Finally, the delicate ‘Goodbye’ brings us back together for a gentle farewell. There would be more from Beachwood Sparks in the form of ‘Desert Skies’, an unreleased album recorded in the 1990s intended as their debut, finally seeing the light of day in 2013. More than anything, this record served to demonstrate the band’s growth by the time ‘The Tarnished Gold’ was released.
Though ‘The Tarnished Gold’ was the third full-length release from Beachwood Sparks, it represents everything the band was about. The songs are dreamy and absorbing, music to lose yourself in, full of sonic layers that reveal themselves over time and gorgeous harmonies that drift up high into the cosmos like sparks from a late-night fire. The engaging melodies take us right back into the experimental sounds of the 1960s, back to some of the roots from which today’s americana grew: the likes of Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers. It’s adventurous country, with sweeping, swirling cosmic psychedelia stirred into the songs, guitars and voices. The overall feel is relaxing and soothing, hypnotic and trance-like, especially when the twanging guitar flies high. This is the sound of a melancholic summer, an album to listen to in its entirety, to absorb the mood, the feel. Timeless and unforgettable. Enjoy.