As much as anyone around, Los Angeles's Beachwood Sparks are working to keep the spirit of Gram Parsons's vision of "cosmic American music" alive. Their name, which recalls both The Zombies' Odyssey & Oracle track "Beechwood Park" and the Canyon rock scene of the '70s, nicely represents their wistful, unmoored country psychedelia. In the spirit of the Beach Boys, Byrds, Burritos, and Buffalo Springfield, the Beachwood Sparks offer plaintive hymns to the emptiness of the Southwest's vistas and the loneliness of the edge of the world.
Featuring members of Further, Lilys, and Strictly Ballroom, the Sparks got together at the end of the '90s and quickly earned a devoted following up and down California. After their early "Desert Skies" EP, Sub Pop was enchanted by the band's yearning pastoral style and put out their self-titled debut album in 2000. While it featured a few slightly underdeveloped songs, Beachwood Sparks also highlighted the strength of the band's connection with the country-rock tradition and the integrity of their take on it.
On their sublime second album, Once We Were Trees (2001), the Sparks treated us to lots of the rambling acoustic guitars, keening slide, dashes of vintage keys, and echoed vocals that appeared on their debut. But the range and sophistication of the material here was leaps and bounds ahead, proving that, far from being rigidly retro-minded, the Sparks are all about innovation and creative songwriting in a genre of music they love through and through. Any doubts anyone might have about that had to be erased by their ambitious 2002 EP, Make the Cowboy Robots Cry. The whimsical title also indicates the evolution shown here, as the band marries their plaintive country aesthetic with a more modern space rock approach, thanks in part to help from electronic kaleidescopist Jimmy Tamborello (Dntel, Figurine, The Postal Service), who adds sounds to all the tracks.
Since the release of that EP, the members of Beachwood Sparks have been busy pursuing other projects, including The Tyde and All Night Radio, but the creative songwriting, unique instrumental approaches, and searching loveliness of their recent releases offer hope for many wonderful albums to come.