The story of Beachwood Sparks is written across three albums of psychedelic Americana, a distinctly West Coast sound in the heralded tradition of The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers.
Now comes the prequel, an unexpected batch of long-shelved recordings that show the band less reliant on laid-back harmonies and bristling with more rock energy.
It may be no surprise to find the band at its wildest, loosest and most varied in the first phase of a trajectory that mellowed significantly in the course of three Sub Pop albums, but what marks Desert Skies as much as its distinct sound is the quality of its songs.
What’s most exciting about the record is the fact that these aren’t demos. Desert Skies isn’t a vault-clearing exercise that rounds up every stray scrap the band ever recorded. This is the album Beachwood Sparks, in the band’s earliest days, intended to release, recorded with an eye toward taking their heralded live show and rapid LA ascendancy and putting it on record.
And the band—a six-piece at the time—was as deep into 1980s and 1990s underground rock as it was the revered greats of earlier generations. All the core elements of Beachwood Sparks are here, but there’s also more, and less, at the same time.
A broader range of influences can be heard. The Byrds and Burritos are clear from the start, but strains of underground rock borrowed from Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. are prevalent as well. And yet, the Beachwood Sparks hadn’t zeroed in on the identity that made the band memorable and instantly recognizable, instead sounding a bit scattered, not quite able to mold all the musical ideas they had into a cohesive whole.
Desert Skies is an eight-song LP, but with four bonus songs on the CD and digital versions that help tell the story. Of the bonus songs, three are different versions and indicative of what sort of decisions the band faced.
The two directions are both mapped. “Sweet Julie Ann” and “Canyon Ride” (the latter also re-recorded for Beachwood Sparks) are the most similar to what the band would become. Elsewhere, “Charm” is contained and catchy, and in both versions, “Make It Together” is straightforward in its Beatles influence.
“Desert Skies,” which would show up in another form as the lead song to the band’s 2000 self-titled debut, is represented twice, the two versions nearly as different from each other as they are from Beachwood Sparks.
But on the nearly eight-minute “Midsummer Daydream,” the wild side sounds just as promising, while “This Is What It Feels Like” pivots from a peppy throwback to British Invasion rock to an unhinged psychedelic jam, enough to question whether it’s the same band, let alone the same song.
Like any prequel, this brings its own set of “what if?”s. And it’s hard to imagine how differently the story of Beachwood Sparks would have played out if the band had chosen to follow Desert Skies.