There is a scene in Easy Rider in which Wyatt and Billy are riding through the woods on their Harleys, just before they give the lone hippie a ride to his commune. The sunlight is glinting through the tall trees, shining on the chrome of the machines; Wyatt and Billy are stoned and feeling all right about their journey. The Byrds' "Wasn't Born to Follow" assumes the role of soundtrack throughout this celluloid moment, and the viewer is consumed with a kind of admiration tinged with jealousy of the two. Jealous of their freedom, their youth, their daring, their stash.
California-based band Beachwood Sparks has obviously watched this film a million times, and transformed their jealousy into emulation.
While none of the members of Beachwood Sparks are actually old enough to remember the California Summer of Love -- bassist Brent Rademaker is barely 36 and the rest of the band are in their early 20s -- they have each made it a personal goal to capture the essence of those times in their attitudes, wardrobes, reading material, album art and most importantly, their music.
This is where Beachwood Sparks self-titled album fails. Outdated musical styles really only succeed when they have been brought to modern standards, as in the cases of Lauryn Hill or The Brian Setzer Orchestra. Instead of a moderate, easy blend of '60s California rock and modern influences, Beachwood Sparks has relied completely on the tried and true melodies, instrumentation and mindset of folks like Buffalo Springfield and Scott MacKenzie. The problem is, we've already heard that. A lot.
The retro approach might have been interesting if the right combination of old and new had been reached. The album features some great slide guitar work by Farmer Dave Scher and percussion by Aaron Sperske, but these attributes are smothered by the vocal stylings of Chris Gunst. He's not a bad singer -- he just sounds like a refugee from a Radiohead/Oasis slumber party. The result is a fluffy, poppy, see-through journey through nothing. What little modern lyricism is added doesn't help to create a new sonorous style, it's merely awkward. The entire album has the aura of a 13-year-old boy trying desperately to fit in.
Gram Parsons and David Crosby, two of the band's heroes, sang their light, free songs with heart, with belief that the new ways of thinking they heralded were true and just. Beachwood Sparks is not singing passionately on a new musical frontier; they have nothing to champion with this album. They're just a bunch of quirky kids whose misguided attempt to honor the sounds they love has backfired, dealing the hippie rock genre an embarrassing blow.
-- Kristen Sherwood
Mary Lou Lord/ Sean Na Na
Kill Rock Stars
Hello little boy or girl, would you like some candy? Sticky sweet sounds and sunny smiles are what you will find in this gem. A split EP born of friendship is something you won't find on a major label these days, which is the great thing about indie labels like Kill Rock Stars. Representing both the folk and noise-pop traditions of the ripened Olympia scene, it was recorded in barns, bedrooms and is full of spontaneous fun. Plus it's a cheap way to check two new sounds.
Years ago, it would have been hard to predict which of KRS's stable of bands would last, and which would implode (heard the latest releases from Jack Acid or Pansy Division?). Mary Lou Lord's mostly acoustic and personal style stood out even during the 7" single days, and happily has seen her through to the age of boy bands. On this EP she offers three cover songs. The first, "Bang Bang" is a tribute to the innocence of early rock la Bill Haley and the Comets. Mary Lou's band on this track, the Raging Teens, wraps the sweetness of her voice in twangy rockabilly taffy. Lucinda Williams' "Hard Road" is a warm, country-fried stroll through the prairie, but the rendition of Nick Saloman's melancholy slacker hymn "Aim Low" is the best track. Conveying the comfortable sadness in underachieving, it features backing vocals by Buffalo Tom's Bill Janovitz.
Sean Tillmann, a.k.a. Sean Na Na is a whining singer/songwriter who has concentrated, since the demise of his band Calvin Krime, on the art of pop perfection. His sarcastic, self-deprecating lyrics express the deepest anomie, while his melodic, toe-tapping, hand-clapping tunes will have you smiling. This combination of dark lyrics and upbeat pop reaches perfection in "Princess and the Pony" which rivals "Blister in the Sun" as the ultimate whiner's anthem. In it he sings with mock glee about his funeral: "How many of you will be/ left to drink whiskey at my funeral party/ remember to bring your flask/ and pour a shot for your dead homie/ Shake your ass around my casket." The EP features only one other Sean Tillmann original, "Stretch Marks," and one song written by keyboardist Lucky Jeremy.
It left me wanting more. His full-length, "Dance Until Your Baby is a Man" is scheduled for release this month on Troubleman Unlimited.
-- David N. Bitz
If you have yet to buy Beck's latest offering -- the '70s and seemingly Prince influenced Midnite Vultures -- stop reading right now and head to your favorite music store -- this may be the best $15 you spend this year.
This funky and soulful album was one of 1999's best. Beck's constant reinvention of sound is what keeps fans coming back album after album. Nothing on Midnite Vultures sounds like "Loser" from Mellow Gold or "Devil's Haircut" off O'Delay, but you will hear songs from it floating over radio waves. The album is full of high-pitched vocals, synthesized backgrounds, raps and well-written, unexpected lyrics (including a plug for Old Navy). Remember the episode of Friends where Ross digs out his keyboard/synthesizer from college and plays techno-sounds at the coffee shop? It's nothing like that.
Groovy and oh-so-danceable, this album is a must have for the disc-changer at your next party. Your living room and those in it will pulse like strobes with Midnite Vultures pouring out the speakers.
It is impossible to pick the best songs -- the album is more like one long song with great change-ups in tempo, style and content. But check out "Nicotine & Gravy," "Get Real Paid," and "Peaches & Cream." In the album's last (and possibly greatest) song "Debra," Beck plays for the lady Jenny in a very Prince way, singing romantically: "I want to get with you, only you ... and your sister. I think her name's Debra."
This is one of the few albums in the last three years that I can't get enough of; each time I play Midnite Vultures, it ends too soon.
-- Carrie Simison