On their first go-around, Beachwood Sparks didn’t burn out; they merely faded away. The California group released two and a half albums’ worth of cosmic country, camping out at the intersection of the ‘60s and ‘70s with Gram Parsons as their spirit guide. Subtle experimental flourishes—especially on their swan song Make The Cowboy Robots Cry EP, produced by Jimmy Tamborello no less—made it seem like the Sparks would be able to keep the cosmic caravan humming into the 21st century. Yet all that made them pop seemed to fizzle over time, and the group disbanded in 2002.
Ten years later, the group has rallied once again for The Tarnished Gold, a one-last-ride-into-the-sunset kind of album. Unfortunately, the Sparks largely fail to rekindle that same creative flame that made them such a sunny beacon in the too-serious indiedom of the late ‘90s. A decade is a long fallow period for any group of musicians, and here the band sounds like they’re just trying to get reacquainted with each other. It’s especially hard for a group like the Sparks, which sports six members and a revolving door of lead vocals and harmonies.
As a result, the songs are much less snappy. The breezy comedown of album-opener “Forget The Song” sets the tone for a good portion of the record, floating by like a ghost of better times. “Bittersweet beauty” seems to be the atmosphere of choice, as songs like “Talk About Lonesome” and “Leave That Light On” can barely be roused out of their hazy beds. “No Queremos Oro”—sung entirely in Spanish—passes as the lone curveball of the set.
But what’s lacking in the songwriting department is made up by the complex harmonies. It’s rare to find one singer that can match a particular vocal style, let alone five. The Sparks belong to a long lineage of country vocal groups that can make their voices sound otherworldly. On a song like “Water From The Well,” the band hits a note of secular spiritualism by writing the songs around their harmonies. It’s a moment like this that hints at the familial bond at the center of the Sparks.
Yet for most of the running time, it feels like the rest of the world is cut off from the Sparks’ own insular world. The Tarnished Gold is often nebulous and obtuse, trading in atmospherics more than the countrified terra firma of the band’s past. The subject of the title track “fell in love with the tarnished gold / That’s what remains when the ashes turn cold.” It’s the most telling statement on an album that could’ve used more telling statements. As it is, the Beachwood Sparks fade away yet again.
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