Beachwood Sparks – The Tarnished Gold

This is a crowded space in which to operate. Fleet Foxes. Vetiver. Husky. Hiss Golden Messenger. Jonathan Wilson. The list goes on. Beachwood Sparks, though, have form. Their 2000 s-t album was well received. But after one more album and an EP, that was it. At first, their brand of country-pop, psychedelic-country, insert equivalent two-word descriptors of your choice, was fresh sounding. Jangly like the Byrds. But just that little bit spaced out. It made waves, because what you got wasn’t quite what you expected. After a decade away, Beachwood Sparks are back. But they’re not quite the same as before. Gone is any overt experimentation. Instead, they’ve placed themselves firmly and squarely in that crowded space. True, the guitars are more country-sounding than most of the laid-back Canyon groups. There’s even a bit of a hoe-down towards the end. But nothing too overstated. Which is perhaps the keyword for the album as a whole. This is an easy listening album and, for once, that’s meant as a compliment. There’s not that sense, as there is with groups such as Chief, Maplewood, The Autumn Defense, of trying hard to ape a particular sound. For Beachwood Sparks the sound comes naturally. ‘Water From the Well’ flows beautifully. ‘Talk About Lonesome’ will not make you feel lonesome at all. Plus, there’s a welcome sense that things aren’t being taken too seriously. Calling a song ‘Sparks Fly Again’ is hardly a coincidence and ending the album with a track called ‘Goodbye’ suggests that there may be another 10-year wait before they return. But just maybe they’re teasing. Let’s hope so.

Beachwood Sparks official label page

Giant Giant Sand – Tucson

There are those for whom Howe Gelb, the brains behind Giant Giant Sand, can do no wrong. This is his 50th album or thereabouts. This one spreads itself across 19 tracks and over an hour and ten minutes of music time. As ever with a Howe Gelb album, and this is his 150th or thereabouts, there are some great moments. ‘Wind Blown Waltz’ begins the album nicely. ‘Love Comes Over You’ is as lovely as it sounds. This album, and it’s Howe Gelb’s 250th or thereabouts, is a self-styled country-rock opera that tells the story of a ‘semi-grizzled’ musician who embarks on a road trip. However, there the narrative thread pretty much ends. More a plot device than a coherent theme, the story provides Gelb with the pretext to visit a range of places and incorporate a variety of musical styles. The best moments are when he sounds like the long-lost country-rock cousin of David Berman of The Silver Jews. The second track ‘Forever And A Day’ is a good example. The worst are when he comes across as the bastard son of Jose Feliciano. Even with Lonna Kelly on vocals, the latin-tinged, lounge songs sound just as cheesy as they’re probably meant to. While the protagonist wanders far, never does he come across the aphorism that less is more. The same point applies to Howe Gelb too. But on this, his 350th album or thereabouts, what’s remarkable is that his sound his still developing. Sure, this is recognizably a Howard Gelb album, but it’s not the same as what went before. And that’s remarkable. There’s probably a sequel to this album already in the pipeline. If so, it goes without saying that Howe Gelb’s 351st album is likely to be equally rewarding.

Giant Giant Sand label site

Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Americana

This is a gloriously raggedy album. Take the opener ‘Oh Susanna’. It begins with the band sounding like they’re playing three different songs. Then one of the backing singers comes in too early. And at the first chorus they all stop way too late. But just at that moment it hits a great groove. And stays there. ‘Tom Dula’ works out exactly the same. At 8 minutes, it’s the nearest the band come to the feeling that’s all over Ragged Glory or, better still, the first three tracks from Broken Arrow. “It’s all one song” someone from the audience shouts, frustrated, on The Year of the Horse. Darn Right. You got it. And yet, Americana doesn’t go to that place quite often enough. The covers that work the best are the ones that sound like Neil Young could have written them. ‘Oh Susanna’ and ‘Tom Dula’ stand out. ‘Wayfarin’ Stranger’ sounds right out of Prairie Wind. ‘Travel On’ is pure International Harvesters-era Neil Young. ‘High Flyin’ Bird’ nearly gets there, but the band haven’t quite figured it out yet. If they play it live in the next few months, then it’ll be as good as those great Jefferson Airplane versions from 1966 and 1967. In the end, what lets Americana down slightly is the song choice. There’s nothing that even Neil Young can do with ‘She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain’, apart from give it the title ‘Jesus’ Chariot’. The same goes for (Oh My Darling) ‘Clementine’. And as for ‘God Save The Queen’. The album might have been released on the right weekend for it, but it’s a true abomination. Which is a shame, because much of Americana is a great introduction to what’s great about Neil Young. He’s at his best when he’s most raggedy. And at times here, he’s certainly at his best.

Neil Young official site