When Beachwood Sparks formed in 1997 and began making what a lot of critics called “cosmic country,” the group was a little ahead of its time. By 2000, when the band put out its first full-length, listeners had caught up a little on the “cosmic” angle, thanks in part presumably to the post-OK Computer boom of bleeps and bloops across the modern rock world. That “country” part, though? Not as much. And so Beachwood Sparks broke up. Fast-forward to 2008, when Sub Pop—the band’s label—threw its 20th-anniversary party and invited the ol’ gang to get back together. They did, it worked, and lo and behold, it seemed like the world was finally into that whole cosmic-country thing. If labelmates like Fleet Foxes could find favor with listeners, why not Beachwood Sparks? Thus, The Tarnished Gold, the band’s reunion album.
Turns out 15 years makes a band a little less freaky and a little more folky, and that’s a good thing. The Tarnished Gold is a lovely record, albeit a little hippie-dippy. It veers into AM Gold territory with tracks like “Tarnished Gold,” which sounds a lot like The Eagles circa “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” and “Sparks Fly Again,” which sounds a lot like American Beauty-era Grateful Dead—but what’s so wrong with that? Beachwood Sparks make music for and by Californians who love living in California, surfing, and hanging out among the redwoods, and for listeners who have no idea what that’s like but love the sound of soft harmonies and a tastefully placed slide guitar.
Even they won’t be blind to the record’s weak points, however. The lyrics to “Mollusk” for instance, mentions of “birds laughing,” “golden sand,” and “happy faces” and “Alone Together,” one of the slower songs on the record, drags a little, but at least it’s pretty. Other tracks, like the banjo-laced “Talk About Lonesome” and “The Orange Grass Special,” feel a bit like sing-alongs from Free To Be You And Me. “Water From The Well” and “Leave That Light On,” however, are thoroughly enchanting, combining deliberateness with whispered vocals to a heartbreaking end.
The Tarnished Gold sounds like a labor of love, an album that Beachwood Sparks wanted to make rather than something the band thought it should make and one that works not as a collection of songs, but as a whole. Much like the band itself, the beauty of the record is a sum of its parts rather than an inventory of its pieces.