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Category Archives: Roots & Americana

Beachwood Sparks – The Tarnished Gold

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Genre: Sunshine Pop, Indie Folk

Fuck Fleet Foxes.

Those are the three words you’ll find in your head after hearing The Tarnished Gold, a record that seems to be built with the sole intent to blow away last year’s critic’s favourite, Helplessness Blues. Because, compared to Beachwood Sparks, Fleet Foxes sound like horribly monotonous children making horribly monotonous music, which is not true at all. Such is the value of this triumphant return.

Not that you’d know Beachwood Sparks were on hiatus and indeed making a return. To know that, you’d have to have heard (and therefore subsequently forgotten) their last album, the sagging and sporadically interesting Once We Were Trees. A critical success, and a huge commercial failure – but who cares – Once We Were Trees wasn’t bad, per se, it merely suffered from being a few years before its time; a few years before magazines like NME and Q abandoned their shameful love of garage rock and decided that, hey, Arcade Fire are at least better than The Vines.

And now, in 2012, it’s a rocky time to be writing psychedelic-tinged folk music. A good time, but a rocky time; one catchy song and you’ve got yourself a spot on every summer festival; one boring album and you sink into the abyss with the millions of other copycats; one good support slot and you’ve gained yourself a cult fanbase.

Oh, and then you’re also nervously quivering in fear that Bon Iver, the manufactured Antichrist himself, will steal anything you do and call it his own. Or bash his battery-powered Casio keyboard at random and call it Art. But I digress.

See, this scene, whatever you wish to call it, from Vancouver to Albuquerque, is a tired and neglected puppy. It needs a rest, it needs some proper love, and it doesn’t even deserve to have much of an audience in this oh-so-elitist futureland with its Beat Detective and its Pro Tools. Enter Beachwood Sparks.

Beachwood Sparks are really quite good.

The obvious comparison is Wilco. Afterall, in the post-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot world, everything is compared to Wilco. Wilco Wilco Wilco. Wilco this, Wilco that. It’s a wonder anyone even tries anymore, which is why Beachwood Sparks have looked a little closer to their California home; namely, two notable things:

The Byrds’ landmark Sweetheart To The Rodeo, and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Stained in reverb until the fog blocks the sun, light and breathy like the soundtrack to a Grand Canyon road trip, at times The Tarnished Gold is a breath of fresh air. At times it’s quite impressive. The title cut, one of the album’s standouts, is so deliciously un-country in an intense country way – think Gilded Palace of Sin, one of the best albums of the late 60s. Water From The Well lights up the sky with all its seductive melancholic gloom. Alone Together softly, kindly, magnificently sways from side to side as the only real ballad here. Talk About Lonesome is as close to its contemporaries as The Tarnished Gold, the album, gets – an Of Monsters and Men-like stomp along with searing CSN&Y harmonies to save the day (we don’t want anything to actually SOUND like Of Monsters And Men, do we?).

But the real highlight here is Leave That Light On; an absolute dream; a sub-zero temperature, 5 minute haze of soothing calmness that couldn’t be more chilled if it moved to Antarctica and called itself Mary Jane.

Overall, The Tarnished Gold is surprisingly touching; a near-brilliant slab of hollow cement that bridges the gap between Buffalo Springfield and Grizzly Bear. It’s reflective, relaxing, and, quite wonderfully, a utopia for fans of the one instrument that makes everything sound like heaven: the pedal steel. The pedal steel is all over The Tarnished Gold, almost enough to warrant its own picture in the liner notes as a lead instrument. You can’t help but adore it and its Topanga Canyon charm.

The drawbacks? Oh, they’re here. The lack of a powerful vocalist hampers Beachwood Sparks slightly, but only when things begin to falter near the end with bags of filler and too-short jingles taking the place of real songs. But even when it occasionally slips into Glastonbury dullness, like in The Orange Grass Special, the first half of The Tarnished Gold is so strong that it doesn’t seem to matter. The material is too strong.

Gram Parsons often spoke of his dream for “Cosmic American Music”. Well, it looks like someone finally got the memo.

Beachwood Sparks will likely receive plaudits and praise and hyperbole and heralding for this album, and deservedly, so beat the rush and get it before it’s cool to own it. If you only buy one thing in July, The Tarnished Gold seems like a pretty good call.

For fans of: Nada Surf, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield

Released June 26th


Counting Crows – Underwater Sunshine

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Genre: Folk, Indie Rock, Alt-Country

Counting Crows are the perfect example of a great, great band who have suffered terribly from the inevitable shifts in mainstream music. Subtly hidden behind the concrete layers of perfectly-edited guitars and the mountains of perfectly-edited overproduction there lies an exceptional live act, a jam band struggling to find liberation, and one of the finest roots songwriters of his generation. But the crucial word here is “hidden”, and far too often records like Hard Candy and This Desert Life have done their utmost best to diminish all the impurities and the rough edges that ultimately make the music of Counting Crows so uniquely organic.

You’d never know it, but in 2 decades Adam Duritz has crafted some of the greatest folk songs around. Goodnight Elisabeth, Omaha, Holiday In Spain, Have You Seen Me Lately were all capable of being pièces de résistance if recorded in another era by, say, The Band. So, to hear the news that they were preparing a covers album should have left an excited taste in the mouths of, well, anybody who cares about the progression of mainstream music. Here was a chance for a popular band to parade forgotten classics to a new audience; a new outlet to re-spread the word of Van Morrison, of Jackson Browne, of Gene Clark, of Bob Dylan, of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. With the colossal fanbase their popularity brings hanging onto every word intently, Counting Crows held all the right tools to push a little of their predecessors back into the mainstream limelight.

Unfortunately, very little of that exists on Underwater Sunshine. Instead, Counting Crows have chosen to make an album that is both stupidly trivial and completely superfluous. In simple terms, cover albums generally exist for one of two reasons:

1) Most commonly, so a band can fulfill the final obligation of their record label contract and be free (this also applies to live albums)

or rarely 2) to rework music into their particular style and explore new dimensions of what the music is capable of

But, alas, not here. What we’re rewarded with are 15 bland, irrelevant cover versions, of which more than half were originally bland and irrelevant songs. And here’s the disappointing part:

None of them surpass the originals.

However, the unnecessary choices don’t begin with pre-77 songs simply done badly (but don’t worry, there’s lots of that to come). Instead, colourless cuts of trendy no-one-really-cares bands like Dawes and Kasey Anderson are included, and the only question to ask is WHY!? What could Counting Crows possibly achieve by covering songs IN THE SAME GENRE, some of which were released less than 3 years ago?

The odd choice of Teenage Fanclub’s Start Again, one of the weaker songs from the Glasgow band’s worst album, is a tedious and stale shadow of the one which appears on Songs from Northern Britain; it sounds like a plodding olympic tortoise racing in the 100m sprint against mutant tortoises with superpowers – that is, even in a race of feeble species, it’s still never going to win. In other words, it sounds exactly like the original, except more dense and will leave you braindead with repeated listens.

Meet On The Ledge, archetypically appearing on Fairport Convention’s What We Did On Our Holidays, is transformed into an embarrassing pub singalong. Big Star’s 1972 powerpop treasure Ballad of El Goodo isn’t much better, somehow managing to go from catchy pop gold into rushed and extraneous middle-of-the-road music. But leading the way is Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris’ Return of the Grevious Angel, something that was never going to be a good choice to cover. The opening track from one of alt-country’s seminal albums, Grevious Angel almost single-handedly inspired a whole movement and genre, so to turn it into a self-important mess is near unforgivable and should be punishable by death. Death by having your ears cut off.

Unsurprisingly, the rare highlight on Underwater Sunshine comes in the very likely form of an old Counting Crows b-side (yes, they’ve covered themselves, regardless of the attempts in the liner notes to say it was written for another band.) Four White Stallions works considerably better than the insipid covers on here, proving that, when it does matter, they’re a band capable of producing quality, professional material; a band who thrive much more on their own songs. Though, it says almost too much about this album when Four White Stallions can be found in much better form on the live release New Amsterdam (which ANY fan of music should own in their collection.) But see, the song also exists as a bonus studio track on the European release of 2002‘s Hard Candy too, so who in the band decided that recording a third time for this tired and worn session was a good idea? We can only assume it’s one of their groupie’s favourite songs.

It’s hard to see where the audience for this album lies; is it the gullible obsessive fanbase, happy to eat everything up that the band spits out? Is it the near-extinct dying breed of CD shoppers out there, still searching the shelves of record stores and blindly buying solely based on band names and cover art? Probably and most likely. Essentially, this record will allow the band to join the ranks of contemporary pompous indie rock with its wobbling shelf life. But, frustratingly, that seems to be what Adam Duritz wants.

Thankfully, this record will be forgotten about in 6 months time when it takes its rightful place in the “rare” section of the Counting Crows discography. And, with some luck, hopefully Adam Duritz’s newfound passion for live-in-the-studio folk music provides a catalyst for wherever the band go next.

It’s very possible to love the Counting Crows yet still agree that Underwater Sunshine is a terrible mistake.

For fans of: The Decemberists, Josh Ritter, Modest Mouse

Released April 10th

Neil Young – Americana

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Genre: Roots, Alt-Country

After the multiple country “comebacks”, the Sonic Youth experiments and the bizarre rockabilly period, you’d be forgiven for thinking Neil Young had accomplished absolutely everything in his 40-something year career.

But that’s where you’d be wrong.

See, having more than earned his right to artistic freedom, what he apparently hasn’t applied his awkward genius to yet are covers of North American folk tales – stories handed down for centuries from grandparents to grandchildren and now, finally, as if it were the apocalypse for these unfortunate songs, they’re all laid out here for Neil Young to destroy one by one.

From the first rumblings of Oh Susannah (which is like walking into a guitar store and hearing a novice trying to impress horribly with Santana’s Evil Ways) you can tell instantly what you’re getting; this isn’t just Neil Young once again denying his moody, melancholic and, ultimately, best side (and it’s not like such incredible records as On The Beach or Tonight’s The Night have been forgotten, he’s proven he can still do it lately with Le Noise); but this is Neil Young’s home demos, made purely so he can laugh at anyone who actually listens to it. It’s all a joke. We have to convince ourselves of this fact before it’s too late.

Clangy and cringyworthy, rough and without reason, this is the voice of Herbert the child molester from Family Guy aging ungracefully as the world around him changes. It’s every kid’s dad picking up a microphone at a wedding with his balding grey hair and proclaiming “BACK IN MY DAY WE KNEW HOW TO ROCK!”. Oh, and he’s brought his “wacky” bar-room drinking buddies Crazy Horse along for the ride too (their first album together since 2003, it’s easy to see why. Can anyone name the last truly-great, classic Crazy Horse album? It was 18 years ago.)

Some may praise its realism, most will find dislike in its beaten-up boxcar approach. Beware of the pretentious views you will likely find rewarding this album for its garage-band sound, for something does not simply turn into Tom Petty once stripped down.

And it’s all here too. God Save The Queen. An endless choir. It’s all here, believe me. God Save The Queen may be the most ear-shatteringly awful attempt on the whole thing. Decide for yourself, but i’m not providing the painkillers after it.

Even if everything possesses salvation somewhere (Americana earns itself one star for the loose honkytonk of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land) some things are best left locked up in the vaults and never released publicly, where, in perspective, it would likely sit far away from Mr Young’s true “stripped down” relic, the forgotten Chrome Dreams.

Move to the moon if it’s your only way of avoiding this record and save your money for something more worthwhile, like the bubonic plague.

For fans of: Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Recommended Track: The silence at the end of the album

Released June 5th