Even though they dress in cowboy hats and Nudie shirts with pearl buttons, Beachwood Sparks is actually a pop band. Drummer Aaron Sperske keeps time for the Lilys, a decent Boston-based garage rock group, while bassist Brent Rademaker was in the faux-fi act further until forming BS with singer/guitarist Chris Gunst (who was briefly in further) and utility man Dave Scher in 1998. Armed with their idolization of Gram Parsons, the Los Angelenos started writing country-tinged melodies because, ironically, they considered the form more “honest.”
The result of those early years is their self-titled debut. Beachwood Sparks could only come from California. The light melodies — meekly cooed by Gunst from behind his greasy bangs — are so insubstantial that a stiff breeze could blow them away. Gunst sounds like such a pussy on “Canyon Ride,” “See, Oh Three” and “The Calming Seas” that the songs lack the conviction needed to make them sound significant. But in “Something I Don’t Recognize,” which bites heavily from The Notorious Byrd Brothers, he finally gets it right, with a lazy phrasing style that nicely accentuates the song’s melancholy psychedelia. The opener, “Desert Skies,” is pleasant enough, but the album needs more testosterone to be effective (too much McGuinn, not enough Clark/Crosby/Parsons).
Once We Were Trees isn’t much different musically, but the production shrouds Gunst’s vocal timidity in reverb and backing harmonies, which is all to the good. Forceful without being bullying, “The Sun Surrounds Me” and “Yer Selfish Ways” are great roadhouse rave-ups, and “Old Manatee” is a passable stab at Bill Monroe. While the aesthetic is still ’60s Los Angeles, the Sparks broaden their horizons a bit, covering Sade’s gorgeous “By Your Side” (kudos to the band for recognizing songwriting excellence, even if their rendition is, at best, shaky) and enlisting J. Mascis for some freaked-out guitar riffs. Once We Were Trees swaggers, asserting its worth, not tentatively begging for it.
The six-song Make the Cowboy Robots Cry is ripe with fixins, but no meat. The production is pure Dave Fridmann bombast (even though his busy fingers were nowhere near it), which only accentuates the band’s fatal flaw (Gunst’s voice, obviously) even more. The songs are nice in a passive, dull way — “Drinkswater” (a lilting lament), “Hibernation” (a pretty ballad/tape-loop experiment) and “Ghost Dance 1492” (a fair mid-tempo rocker) — but hardly memorable.
In addition to Beachwood Sparks, Gunst, Scher and Rademaker play with the Tyde, another country-tinged Los Angeles outfit, this one fronted by Brent’s brother (and further bandmate) Darren Rademaker. With a voice that is bland and cautious, he reaches for a bluesy, everyman affectation in the poppy “All My Bastard Children” and falls flat. The rest of Once is power pop with a bit of a twang, floating in the same tepid waters as Old 97’s and Whiskeytown. There are some strong songs here (the catchy and likable “Get Around Too” and “New Confessions”) but the country-pop approach is a bore. Several cuts go on too long (particularly “Get Around Too,” which misses greatness by two minutes) and the arrangements are way too full. A sparser platter would have been much more appealing.