In our post-ironic, cynical, post-postmodern whatever-you-call-it age, it's fairly hard to find pop music that promises big, silly grins. The jangly, dreamy country pop of Beachwood Sparks somehow manages. With little more than a year of performing together, the four-man band from Los Angeles has captured the essence of sunny West Coast groups like the Byrds and the Beach Boys. Today's Mr. California, Beck, handpicked them to open for him last year.
The Sparks are the kind of players who wear Wallabies, favor steel guitars and let loose soaring, multiple harmonies in wispy, nasally voices. As 34-year-old bass player and vocalist Brent Rademaker (and former member of indie band Further) has explained, the members of the group are trying to incorporate the sounds of deserts and oceans into their music. Even their name -- although taken from the intersection where some of the group once lived -- has the sound of what you'd get from a beach bonfire made out of driftwood.
Beachwood Sparks write about California the way Joan Didion writes about California -- with a clean and precise spareness and an eye toward the beauty and limitations of the landscape, both city and country. In "Desert Skies," which came out as a single last year and leads off their debut, lead vocalist and guitarist Chris Gunst sings, "Desert sky kept me dry from the city rain/The stars poked holes through the sky." Aaron Sperske, who also plays drums for the Lilys, favors his snare and softly swings on the song while a graceful acoustic guitar strums the rhythm.
The album's 14 songs alternate between midtempo head bobbers and bittersweet, cry-in-your-beer odes. Their whole musical effect is one of expansive openness; each guitar and harmonica wail, piano warble, delicate harmony and cymbal splash has its own space within a song. An organic dryness pervades the production -- you get the feeling they recorded vocals without overdubs or effects pedals.
While they're not totally country -- heck, they're not even alt-country -- some of the Sparks' songs invoke similar images: beaches and tumbleweeds, surfboards and rusty pickup trucks. "Sister Rose" bounces back and forth between slide guitar and a boom-thwacka bass line in the chorus, then breaks and crashes like a wave into a hip-shakin', tambourine-raisin' bridge.
Other tunes are transitional ditties more than true songs: "Ballad of Never Rider," "Singing Butterfly" and "This Is What It Feels Like" are lush, textured keyboard and guitar experiments in which repeated lyrics reinforce a sort of forsaken hippie-country shake. On "Canyon Ride," though, singer Gunst ultimately finds some solace. "There's no stars in the city," he sings. "And isn't it a pity/They don't see the things I see." Maybe we can't all see everything he sees, but the Beachwood Sparks' sunny-sad music does capture their particular California dream.