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Beachwood Sparks

Our critics' picks in new releases

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Once We Were Trees is a sprawling work of densely layered musical textures. While still mining the territory of late '60s/early '70s country-rock (The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers), the L.A. lads' sophomore release also sprinkles in a blissful dose of Dream Syndicate, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. It's the kind of album that seems to envelop you, gently caressing and comforting, until its magic comes into focus.

Chris Gunst's thin, nasal vocals add a wistful air, set over the often stunningly beautiful music tracks. It's an incredibly effective juxtaposition. The stage is set on the album's opening track, "Confusion is Nothing New," as layers of intertwining guitar arpeggios support languidly hazy and trippy vocals: "Tomorrow you could start anew/Unless hopefulness has lost its way to you."

Between Gunst's doleful vocal meanderings and the inspired guitar interplay, Dave Scher (on slide guitar and keys) provides the perfect minor-chord counterbalance throughout, often hanging back in the mix until the tension reaches the breaking point, then stepping forward and washing it all clean. Other highlights include the slow, rueful longing of "Let it Run" and the exquisitely beautiful (entirely unexpected) cover of Sade's adult-contemporary hit, "By Your Side." "The Good Night Whistle" is a sparse and elegant lullaby, and "Jugglers Revenge" is an impressive instrumental stomp of fiery guitar that slowly builds and recedes over a dissonant bed of sonic intensity.

With Once We Were Trees, Beachwood Sparks have managed to succeed where a lot of their '60s psychedelic-revival contemporaries have not. While they've obviously been influenced by their predecessors, they've managed to develop their own voice. The Beachwood Sparks do more than re-create a bygone musical era. As heirs to the tradition Gram Parsons dreamed would be called "cosmic-American music," they're bearers of the next generation's standard.

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