Sparks plug in – folk-rockers get electrified

by Elizabeth Bromstein

The title of the latest ep from the Beachwood Sparks should give you a good indication of how the cosmic Californians’ sound has evolved: Make The Cowboy Robots Cry sums it up nicely.

Their wistfully atmospheric music, inspired by late-60s country and dusted with spacey ambient psychedelia, now bears the electronic stamp of maestro synthesist Jimmy Tamborello (ex-Strictly Ballroom, Further), who records for Plug Research as DNTEL. "We were really enthused with what Jimmy (who also recorded and mixed the record) was doing with DNTEL," says Sparks bassist/keyboardist Brent Rademaker from Atlanta, Georgia. 

"The addition of electronics makes things clearer, more immediate. You know, like when you send a letter it can take weeks to get there, but with digital stuff you just hit a key and it’s there."

According to Rademaker, the band’s two previous Sub Pop discs, 2000’s Beachwood Sparks and 2001’s Once We Were Trees, reflect a lot of older, more traditional production styles.

Their latest recording came together more quickly, and apparently the concept arose from a different place. However, no amount of cajoling can make Rademaker come clean with any degree of clarity. Instead, he prefers to speak of the band’s inspirations in the most oblique terms possible.

"It’s like the plight of any race of people of your choice," he offers. "Or when you miss someone and want to talk to them… Or when you feel sorry for how the country you live in has come to be."

Yeah, right. He’s referring to the lovely, haunting Ponce De Leon Blues — on which L.A. singer/songwriter Mia Doi Todd makes a vocal cameo — about the Spanish explorer who discovered Florida by accident while searching for the mythical fountain of youth.

"A lot of natives wound up dying as a result, and in Florida he’s hailed as some kind of hero," says Rademaker.

Melancholy. Sadness. Hence the crying of the cowboy robots.

The EP also marks the return and recording debut of original Beachwood Sparks drummer Jimi Hey. "He’s such a dynamic, adventurous thinker. Having him in the band pushes us to go further," Rademaker insists.

Although the Beachwood Sparks are still constantly compared to the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Rademaker begs to differ.

"We," he states firmly, "are the only ones doing what we’re doing."

Originally published by NowToronto.com in 2002