Tag Archives: Beachwood Sparks

Under The Radar: The Donkeys

There are just too many records to sift through.

As a result, I sometimes miss a follow-up to an album that I really liked, even though I spend a while keeping my eyes peeled for their next one. But many times there is no next one, or the stars don’t align and I miss out on it when it drops. In a perfect world I will run across it again eventually thanks to my habitual late-night web browsing, but those gaps are getting longer and longer as time goes on.

So that’s my long-winded way of telling you that The Donkeys released Living On The Other Side in 2008, and I only realized that today. So while I’m off to get that one, let me pimp you on their self-titled effort from 2006, because there’s a chance that you might not have heard either one. And I can vouch that at least one of them is a real gem.

Here’s my 2006 review from Pop Culture Press…

I almost don’t know where to start in describing the collective sound. A pinch of Wilco, a dash of Beachwood Sparks, a whisper of the first Rod Stewart album but only if played in Gram Parsons’ living room on a Sunday morning. The Donkeys, as unassuming as their moniker, quietly serve up a gumbo of bottleneck country blues, sun-drenched folk and pensive basement soul that is solidly entertaining and occasionally mesmerizing.

Four musicians from San Diego who blend perfectly; percussion that never overplays, solid bass that yangs the drummer’s yin, guitar lines that fuzz, shine and shimmer, and what can only be described as impeccable choices from the keyboard player. Beyond the sounds, unusual, challenging and dark lyrics hover, adding an ever deeper dimension.

The oddball waltz of “Paisley Patterns” might be too off-putting for some (especially with the droning lyric of “All my friends are dead” haunting the melody) but just about everything else here is pure ear-worm material. “Try To Get By” is a two-minute arm-wresting match between Bob Dylan and Neil Young. “Black Cat” is The Band reincarnated as Built To Spill. “No Need For Oxygen” is six minutes of aural beauty juxtaposed with somber lyrics, but it could have gone on six more without a complaint.

This album could be the soundtrack of your Saturday night depression, your Sunday morning sunrise coffee, or your silent road trip home after “that” weekend…your dwindling cigarette pack on the passenger seat and your life in the balance. It sounds like a cop-out when you describe a record as sounding “organic”, but when ninety percent of what comes out of your speakers is too easily categorized, records that percolate their own energy deserve a bright floodlight. Go find this wonderful record and immerse yourself. 

The Donkeys on MySpace

Donkey Buzz

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Blast From The Past – Beachwood Sparks

beachwood_sparks

The great thing about revisiting albums years later – especially ones that not everyone is talking about – is that you hear them differently and pick up new wavelengths. It’s almost ten years since Beachwood Sparks released their eponymous album, and while I still enjoy it I’m able to discover other subtleties in the music beyond the major touchstones I identified the first time around. From legacy bands like the Grateful Dead to more recent purveyors Apples In Stereo, it’s all about texture.

Here’s what I wrote for Cosmik Debris back in 2000…

Gram Parsons described his style as “Cosmic American Music”, and I suppose that if he were around to hear Beachwood Sparks, he’d let the quartet on his bus without a second thought.

A quick look at the graphics and titles would have you trot out Buffalo Springfield or The Flying Burrito Brothers as a touchstone, but the production and arrangements owe as much to inventive popmeisters like Brian Wilson and Mitch Easter. In fact, I imagine that if Easter or master knob-twiddler Brad Jones were sent back in time to produce Parsons, this would be the result. Except “Something I Don’t Recognize”, where he would need the Nesmith-led Monkees. Or “Old Sea Miner”, where only XTC would do.

Aw hell, Parsons would have gotten around, he was that kind of guy. And the fact that Beachwood Sparks pulls all of this off without painting themselves into a corner is a hell of a compliment.

The overall sound is psychedelic, dreamy introspection, with interludes like “Singing Butterfly” leading into more uptempo Byrds/Poco moments like “Sister Rose”. Of course, just when you’re safely in that mood, they toss in an aggressive fuzzbox guitar solo over a go-go beat just to throw you for a loop. “See On Three” recalls Wilco’s experimentation, but the dizzying signature changes are probably even outside of Tweedy’s methods.

“This Is What It Feels Like” is another time-travel song, sounding like a pop track that somehow leaked into the future from 1967 California. “The Reminder” eerily and beautifully recalls the innocence of Neil Young’s first records with its delicate guitar and lilting vocals. Individually, these are wonderfully realized moments; as an album, it’s a mental watercolor painting that will dance with your imagination.

I had mixed feelings about their follow-up album, but I love the debut as much today as I did ten years ago. So if you haven’t savored this one yet, please do. And keep your eyes open – supposedly they will release a new album soon (it’s been an eight year drought!)

Beachwood Sparks on Amazon.

Beachwood Sparks on MySpace

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