The debate that Beachwood Sparks are imitators and not innovators is one that really infuriates this writer. So, we won’t get into that here but, having lived through the times that this band have taken their so obvious influences from, I will say that Beachwood Sparks capture not only the sound but also the spirit of those times perfectly and don’t just recycle that music either. They also breathe some new life into it while never forsaking the original sound.

‘Desert Skies’ is not the official follow-up to 2012’s ‘The Tarnished Gold’, but more a prequel to the band’s self-titled debut which saw the light of day back in the year 2000. ‘Desert Skies’ features eight songs that, as far as I can tell, were intended to form the basis of the band’s debut; they appear here along with four bonus tracks, three of which appear on the main album in slightly different versions.

And, yes, those Flying Burrito Brothers and Byrds influences were there from the start. There’s no denying that. These songs are, however, not rough demos, but fully-formed songs. A couple (‘Desert Skies’ and ‘Canyon Ride’) appear in different versions on the band’s debut album, and I have to go against the flow here too and say that the original readings of those songs that feature on ‘Desert Skies’ have a (not unsurprisingly) edgier sound than the versions on the Sub Pop debut released in 2000.

With an excellent, recent essay from Beachwood Sparks mainstay Brent Rademaker included with the CD which details the beginnings of the band and how these songs came to be recorded, ‘Desert Skies’ is a must-have for anyone who has bought any of the band's previous albums. It should not be seen as some kind of cash-in or stop-gap, ‘Desert Skies’ stands as a complete album, the perfect introduction to the glorious sound this band makes.

Back in 1997 and when the album was recorded Beachwood Sparks was six-strong. By the time of the band's official debut in 2000 the core of Rademaker, Chris Gunst and Dave Scher was still there and they had been joined by Aaron Sperske, while losing original members Josh Schwartz, Pete Kinne and Tom Sanford.

Beachwood Sparks immediately show their influences with the opening version of ‘Desert Skies’. It’s surely exactly the sound Gram Parsons had in mind when he coined the description Cosmic American Music. Yes it harks back to certain sounds of the sixties but when it’s performed with the skill and conviction that this band inject into every song it’s pointless criticising them for that. Just enjoy it for what it is - an amalgamation of all that was good about the American West Coast folk rock sound.

What seems to be forgotten over time is that few of what we now call classic albums from that era were brilliant from start to finish and that’s where bands like Beachwood Sparks come into their own. Given years of music to absorb and study, they can take inspiration from all the best songs to create something of their own. While looking back fondly at the sounds they wish to recreate, they can concentrate on the best bits. That’s why an album like ‘Desert Skies’ works so much better than many of the original albums that the band have drawn inspiration from.

They clearly knew what bands they loved and what sounds they were trying to emulate. 'Desert Skies' has very few rough edges on any of its tracks. It’s an accomplished set of songs, and while you can hear all the usual culprits in there somewhere - The Byrds, Burritos, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Buffalo Springfield - you get the picture it’s an almost endless list, and it’s understandable why so many think the band had no direction of their own. The actual music these guys make is so good that does it really matter if they sound like your favourite band from that era? So, Beachwood Sparks didn’t break any new ground musically, but they can go on making this beautiful noise forever if they continue doing it this well. And so far they have.

But to those who feel that Beachwood Sparks have just the one song and can only produce the same sound over and over, a quick listen to ‘This is What It Feels Like’ should change all that. It starts as a chugging piece of pop/country rock, repetitive, addictive but nothing truly outstanding even though you can’t get it out of your head. Then halfway through the song’s five minutes it turns into a psychedelic jam fest which leaves you thinking that this has surely not just got to be a different song but a different band. There’s more to Beachwood Sparks than their detractors would like you to believe.

‘Desert Skies’ is not a curiosity. It’s a worthy set of songs that really should have been the band's debut album and there’s nothing here that they should be ashamed of. Simply put it’s a short but brilliant example of West Country psych/folk/rock and one of the best of its genre. Top marks to Alive Naturalsound Records who have done their usual excellent job with the packaging of the album and for putting this fascinating album out at long last.











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