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The retro sounds of Beachwood Sparks

By Lois Maffeo

MARCH 20, 2000:  For anyone who spent his or her adolescence in the early '70s, it's not necessarily a thrill to find the era's sounds and fashions make a comeback. Flipping through the pages of Vogue and seeing a hand-embroidered peasant dress doesn't make me want to dash out to buy one. It throws me violently back to the memory of the grade-school dance where my gauzy peasant dress, in its dazzling shades of beige, betrayed the fact that I hadn't yet been fitted for a training bra. My motto is: if it's brown, sounds like the Eagles, or smells like skunk weed, I want nothing to do with it.

Beachwood Sparks' homonymous debut album would, at first listen, appear to be nothing more than a well-meaning tribute to the sounds of that era -- specifically, Southern California circa the late '60s and early '70s. The music is reminiscent of the 12-string shimmer of the Byrds and the warm twang of the Flying Burrito Brothers, with a bit of wispy psychedelia thrown in for good measure. The band wear their nostalgia on their cambric sleeves, as well as in their white jeans, wide leather belts, stringy Jackson Browne hair, and quilted cowboy shirts. Yet Beachwood Sparks transcends the pastiche that often inflicts retro artists who end up believing that the clothes makes the band: rather than just re-creating a particular sound and vision, the group recast the early '70s as a palatable place to revisit.

It doesn't hurt that, along with their specific brand of retro country rock, Beachwood Sparks are versed in the light jangle of '80s indie pop and even the Sonic Youth school of '90s discord. Just as the Make Up redefine gospel and Olivia Tremor Control summon the ghosts of Beatlesque psychedelia, Beachwood Sparks stand with one foot in the mellow-rock past and one set quite comfortably in the here and now. Beachwood Sparks offers yet another fine example of how indie rock can pull a mostly forgotten and largely discredited style from the dustbin of history and breathe new life into it -- what Stephin Merritt has done with '80s British synth-pop, Combustible Edison did with '50s exotica, and Stereolab continue to do with the hippie-tinged krautrock of Can and Neu!

"The Southern California sound helped define us," admits Beachwood Sparks bassist Brent Rademaker over the phone from his LA home. But like most artists raised in the indie method, he wouldn't settle for simply scratching the surface of an era and its sound. "We wanted to express some of the more obscure things we were listening to at the time we started the band. We were gravitating between the Gene Clark solo albums and [the Byrds'] Younger Than Yesterday. But there were also these tapes being compiled by this guy we know named Rex. He's a total connoisseur of late-'60s freak rock and country music. These tapes had these unknown groups like the Kak and all these British bands trying to sound like the American bands. And that inspired us to search out even more obscure music."

The period that Rademaker and his fellow band members focus in on was a crucial one. Desperate for an "American Beatles," industry gadflies had settled on the Byrds, a group who quickly graduated from the Sunset Strip folk scene into the world of electric rock. Their Rickenbacker-fueled jangle pop embodied the California sound that represented youth culture during that unsettled time when the postwar baby boom was heading for cultural domination. The pop industry, whose power base was rapidly switching from New York's Brill Building to LA's land of golden opportunity, immediately jumped on the "Mr. Tambourine Man" bandwagon and started putting out albums by practically anyone who walked by in a fur vest and desert boots. From the goofy bap-bap-bah of the Turtles to the over-earnest Barry McGuire, the California scene shone with manufactured pop glitter.

But Rademaker points out that the band also draw inspiration from the mid-'80s LA scene that included Rain Parade and the Dream Syndicate. Those groups, along with the Long Ryders, similarly summoned the ghosts of So Cal rock. And Rademaker sees his band as a continuation of that: "I think this whole scene has grown and shrunk and died and then it starts again." Of course, none of those bands made as big an impact as the original So Cal pop bands they drew inspiration from. And neither have Beachwood Sparks. But Rademaker and his guys make the most out of the handful of ideas they found while out beachcombing. And sometimes that's enough.


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