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Beachwood Sparks 

Once We Were Trees (Sub Pop)

Wednesday, Oct 17 2001
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L.A.'s Beachwood Sparks are in love -- hazily infatuated with the psychedelic Golden State country music of late hippiedom. If you've already fallen for the very same tousled beauty, then Once We Were Trees might touch your heart too. This sophomore LP may also make you red-faced jealous at how well the four Sparks romance Ms. American Beauty. With fragile, seductive harmonies, shimmering Hammond and pedal steel caresses, and fabulous pickup lines like "Don't breathe a word, though we may lose our way out in the pines," the lass would have to be crazy to turn the band down. Of course, she is crazy -- and stoned, self-involved, and deliberately mysterious as well. She wants to dress you in vintage boots and a gabardine shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons, and elope to Humboldt to open a crystal shop. If she's simply not your type, then this album of love letters will -- at times -- sound like someone else's eccentric passion for the past.

And, boy, is the band passionate. The loping ballad "Hearts Mend" and woozy waltzes like "The Old Manatee" could be outtakes from the Gram Parsons-era Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, while the tougher groove of "The Sun Surrounds Me" recalls Buffalo Springfield. On the other hand, Once We Were Trees is no strict period piece -- unlike Beachwood Sparks' self-titled debut of last year. Here, there are '50s touches, like the reverberating Fleetwoods harmonies on "Banjo Press Conference"; a touch of Motown in the catchy, arching chorus of "The Hustler"; and dollops of subtle feedback and brittleness that betray the band members' roots in '90s indie rock acts like Further and the Lilys.

But the oddest feature of the album is monolithic, sure to disorient purists. Two-thirds of the way through the 15-track, variegated retro journey, the Sparks allow their bloodshot eyes to wander away from their hippie Gypsy goddess and in the direction of ... Sade. Yes, that Sade, the classy soul chanteuse whose sweetest taboos probably don't include a date in a VW bus. The band takes her most recent hit, "By Your Side," and transforms it into lilting, searing pop rock that -- in a rare reversal of the usual equation -- is more soulful than the R&B original. The song's straightforward pledge of loyalty lends purpose to singer Chris Gunst's sweet, breathless style, which often conveys lyrics that get as hippie-dippy as the album's title suggests. On "By Your Side" the band lets everyone into its vintage love affair, even if you've never heard Moby Grape, much less inhaled. Could it be a hint of things to come?

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Andrew Marcus

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