More musical crimes have been committed in the name of Gram Parsons than I have room to list here, so the promise of another band dipping its toes in the same warm creek as the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers doesn't necessarily fill me with anticipation. And last year's Beachwood Sparks, the debut album by this LA quartet, had its share of painfully self-conscious moments--like the high pedal-steel whine that opens its first song, "Desert Skies." But unlike so many other indie bands who've adopted the trappings of country rock, the Beachwood Sparks tap into the expansive spirit of Parsons's sound, which he insisted on calling "cosmic American music." On their second album, Once We Were Trees (Sub Pop), thick organ and heavy guitar arpeggios are veiled in reverb, Dave Scher's pedal steel gliding into the mix like liquid silver. Even more than on the band's debut, songs veer off into strange psychedelic tableaux, similar to the electronic experiments on The Notorious Byrd Brothers: the straight-ahead rock of "The Sun Surrounds Me" suddenly dissolves into a ghostly bridge of syncopated percussion and swirling guitars, and just as suddenly falls back into its rolling chorus; the slow waltz of "Let It Run" drifts off into a vast cavern of ethereal church organ and harmonica; and the spooky swing tune "Once We Were Trees" aborts in a pounding guitar jam and a flash flood of feedback that unexpectedly ends the record. That sort of stylistic irreverence may have angered traditional country fans in the 60s, but its ultimate objective was to convey the transcendence of the American west. Thirty years after the fact, the Beachwood Sparks mostly just capture the transcendence of late-60s southern California country rock--but that's far more than any of their alt-country contemporaries have managed. Sunday, November 4, 9 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, 773-525-2508.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Autumn De Wilde.