Desert Skies: Modern California Country-Rock Essentials

Last month, Beachwood Sparks officially reissued their self-titled debut album in light of its 20th anniversary. The reissue, out via Brent Rademaker’s L.A. imprint Curation Records, includes an exquisitely packaged vinyl remaster, new merch, and a Beachwood Deluxe CD comprised of alternate versions of classic songs and eight live tracks from a concert in Green Bay, Wisconsin in 2000 – a dandy of a collector’s item from one of the early aughts most celebrated indie bands.

At the time of its release, Beachwood Sparks drew comparisons to the psych-tinged folk and country-rock of The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, and other ’60s California outfits and was hailed for its modern eclectic take on a distinctly West Coast style of music. Tracks like “Desert Skies,” “Silver Morning After,” and “Sister Rose” offered up fresh and innovative interpretations of sounds that once echoed through the hills of Laurel Canyon and old rootsy venues like the Palomino Club. But as well received as the record was in its time, the true magic of the first Beachwood Sparks album lies in the ripple effect of its vibrations and the waves of influence it created, the effects of which are still being felt to this day.

In the time since, Los Angeles has blossomed with a vibrant roots scene, of which many of the bands can be linked to that original Beachwood Sparks lineup. The Tyde, GospelbeacH, and the Skiffle Players are but a few of the notable groups that include one or more of Beachwood’s original members, each of those outfits then linking to several others, forming a closely-bonded and never-ending cycle of creativity and collaboration. So grows the Beachwood Sparks family tree.

This new era has also welcomed the arrival of several young and exciting artists eager to forge their own lane within and beyond the Los Angeles circuit. Bands like Mapache and Pacific Range represent the youngest wave of talented singers and players in the up and coming country-rock movement, while songwriters like Leslie Stevens and Pearl Charles have been carving out their own niches in the greater cosmic country bubble for over the last half decade. Wherever you look, the sound is there, appearing in all sorts of different shapes and sizes.

With their first album, Beachwood Sparks ushered in a new era of L.A.-centric Cosmic American music that covers everything from sun-drenched surf rock to chooglin’ jam band tunes to good old fashioned honky-tonk. It’s been referred to as California country, canyon rock, Californiana; the list goes on. No matter how it’s labeled, the single most distinct quality about it: it’s a sound that truly lives here.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Beachwood Sparks, we teamed up with Lara from Petal Motel, aka the best Cosmic American music blog on the internet, to put together a list of 15 essential albums that capture the essence of modern California country-rock in all its variations.

Check out the full list of picks, plus an accompanying playlist, below.

Neal Casal – Anytime Tomorrow (2000)

Lara: Despite so many sad songs on this album, they sound so sun-filled, perfect for zipping up and down the 101, singing along at the top of your lungs. I’ve said before that this record marks a turning point in Neal’s career, transforming from his New Jersey fuzz folk roots into a fully blossomed California rocker. It’s got the jams – “Camarillo,” “Willow Jane,” and the more melodic, plaintive-sounding “Time Down the Wind” and “Fell On Hard Times,” both of which I think are some of Neal’s best ballads. I used to drive down Topanga Canyon every single weekend for many years with this album on. It’s perfect. Greg Leisz, who played pedal steel on this record and most of Neal’s other records, told me that he recognized in Neal the same quality he saw in Jackson Browne – of being a true California artist.

Roberto: Neal Casal’s music embodies what I think of as “canyon rock” – that mix of uplifting highway jams with a nice, driving beat meshed with pretty acoustic numbers layered with mellow guitars and guy-girl harmonies. It definitely reflects on the “cosmic” component of West Coast country-rock, not in a psychedelic sense, but specifically in how it pulls from different styles and influences to create something distinctly California. I mean, how many songs have been written about or even reference Camarillo? As Lara mentions, the big contradiction on Anytime Tomorrow is that it’s a jambalaya of feel-good riffs, hooks, and melodies, but its lyrics are so painfully personal and depressing. In spite of this, the album is life-giving. It’s tailor-made for the open road and sounds incredible on a sunny day. “Willow Jane” slays (more sax please!) and “Raining Straight Down” is both triumphant and anthemic.

Listen to Anytime Tomorrow

The Tyde – Once (2001)

Lara: One reason this record is so astonishing to me is that it has so much of the personnel from Beachwood Sparks but sounds completely different. The vibe is still there – the spirit of collaboration, the odes to sunshine and surfing, but it’s less twang and a lot more groovy power pop. I think the fork in the road is the heavy sarcasm on “All My Bastard Children,” which is one of the best songs ever. “New Confessions” is a favorite, as is “North County Times.” I heard a rumor that this record will have a 20th anniversary reissue this year – keep an eye on Curation Records to confirm!

Roberto: Given their personnel connections, The Tyde really is that first major branch off the Beachwood Sparks family tree. Once captures that dreamy off-shoot of the Beachwood sound but it’s also its own kind of precursor to the wave of jangly indie pop that dominated the late aughts and early 2010s. It’s so warm and nostalgic, I have no doubt there are a lot of people out there that regard this as their all-time favorite album. The intermingling of keyboards and guitars throughout is absolutely sublime, and the songs hold up as catchy and well-written meditations about what it was like to come of age in SoCal twenty years ago. Oh, and “North County Times” is undoubtedly the greatest 760 anthem to ever exist.

Listen to Once

Beachwood Sparks – Once We Were Trees (2001)

Roberto: To me, this album is just as fascinating as the first one. In a lot of ways, it’s the perfect follow up. It’s tripped out, a lot hazier, and somehow more breezy – like they took whatever psychedelic influences were already there and just went full throttle without compromising any great hooks or melodies. It really is a great “vibe” album and an extremely cohesive listen front to back. I can’t hear “The Sun Surrounds Me” or “The Hustler” and not be in a great mood. “Confusion Is Nothing New” sounds like The Byrds on steroids and the Sade cover is forever a classic.

Lara: Once We Were Trees is the dream pop foil to Beachwood Sparks’s country-rock, shooting the band through the atmosphere into outer space. Retaining specific elements of both genres, this shimmering album feels somehow primordial. Songs flow elegantly into one another, each song like sunlight filtering through the trees, flecked with gold and green, the sound of chutes unfurling, aspiration, becoming the air we breathe. “The Sun Surrounds Me” is such a meaningful song, “Old Manatee,” “The Hustler” are faves, although I feel this album is best absorbed as an entire piece rather than song by song. To me, Beachwood Sparks invented this genre. I know they had their influences but they were the first to do it in such a modern and fresh way that countless others have aspired to achieve, whether or not they realize it.

Listen to Once We Were Trees

Farmer Dave – Flash Forward to the Good Times (2009)

Lara: Another surf opus, Farmer Dave’s first solo record is groovy and ethereal, multi-faceted and layered but still perfect groovy pop. Farmer Dave’s music is psychedelic not in the traditional sense of being filled with fancy guitar solos and heavy pedals, although they do exist, but so many different pieces working together and interweaving seamlessly to create a lustrous musical fabric that can reach the cosmos. Every song is great – “You Pick Me Up,” “Feel Me Baby,” and “We Have a Way” being the more obvious hits, but the concluding track, “Surf’s Out Sunset” is perfect, a beautiful, thematic consummation, the kind of song I’d like played at my funeral… I think FD would appreciate that thought – it isn’t morbid, it’s all part of it. I can tell you that his latest project, Farmer Dave and the Wizards of the West out 1/21 on Curation Records and Big Potato Records… is certainly *not* less trippy. Whereas Flash Forward is all water, FDWOW is 100% air.

Roberto: Is it safe to say Flash Forward to the Good Times is the grooviest album on this list? Of all the characters on the Los Angeles scene, Farmer Dave has to be among the most eccentric of the bunch. His instrumental prowess is otherworldly, evident on just about every track here. “You Pick Me Up,” “Flash Forward 2 The Good Times,” and “Finnz Hammock” are just a few examples of his distinct mix of country-flavored funk. Personally, I love his shaky, laid back SoCal drawl, which adds so much personality to his songs. His Instagram handle captures it best: Farmer Dave is nothing but timeless.

Listen to Flash Forward to the Good Times

Jonathan Wilson – Gentle Spirit (2011)

Lara: J.Wilson really *gets* the magic of California in a way I think only people not born there can. On other albums, he sings love songs directly to Los Angeles, crooning “Lord I thank you for this Hollywood playground,” on Rare Birds’ “Hi Ho the Righteous.” Gentle Spirit, however, is a more all-encompassing tour of California and perhaps a hip Angeleno’s evolution – asking “Can We Really Party Today” leading into “Desert Raven,” with its spiraling psychedelic riff written while tripping in Joshua Tree and mistaking asphalt for water; “Canyon in the Rain” a soft and wet ramble through Wilson’s home in Topanga, the soaring, piercing quality and intricate guitarwork of “Natural Rhapsody,” and the lone wolf cry of “Valley of the Silver Moon.” Arguably my favorite track, “Magic Everywhere” absolutely vibrates, a hallucinatory listen that captures the wonder of the beauty found simply walking through the Hollywood Hills. 

Roberto: There is something mystical about Jonathan Wilson as a solo artist. As a producer and sideman, he’s intangible, able to adapt and evolve into whatever a specific project needs him to be, while still utilizing his indispensable skillset. His solo records enable him to tap into his sensual side and in turn, unleash a whole different kind of beauty. Gentle Spirit is extravagant without being indulgent. Guitars cascade down like waterfalls, synths and organs ring with the grace of a songbird, and Jonathan’s hushed vocal delivery induces a trance-like state. “Desert Raven” and “Ballad of the Pines” are two of my favorites, but the whole album is radiant.

Listen to Gentle Spirit

GospelbeacH – Another Summer of Love (2017)

Lara: What I love most about GospelbeacH is that there are no attempts to be vague or subtle about what their music is – a joyous expression of love and celebration of California. GospelbeacH’s live shows got me excited about seeing music again (I’d taken a long hiatus after a bunch of years going to too many bad, weird hardcores shows) with their groovy tunes, great showmanship and unabashed fun quality. Opening track “In the Desert” has this enchanting, colorful mysticism, calling you east, with one of the best guitar solos of all time. When I hear “California Fantasy,” I’m transported, living inside my own.

Roberto: So much of the music on this list hangs its hat on sunny textures and feel-good sounds. GospelbeacH might champion this pillar of the California sound most prominently and ultimately, that’s what makes this album so satisfying. Their songs are the breeze that roams the hills overlooking the city, the buzz that fills the beach on a summer day, and the heat simmering off of every desert highway. It’s not cliche, it’s beautiful. When I listen to Another Summer of Love, I want to hear songs about hitting the road, “going dancing” and “feeling alright,” and warm winters in the confines of L.A. And yes, if this list could be distilled down to one musical moment, the solo on “In the Desert” is it. Pure magic.

Listen to Another Summer of Love

Blank Tapes – Candy (2018)

Lara: You know the Blank Tapes – even if you don’t know you know. Matt Adams, the main dude and figurehead of the Blank Tapes, seems unable to stop creating, with an incredibly prolific output of material in between creating visual art for folkYEAH! Events, the Grateful Dead, the Skiffle Players, and countless others. This record is one of the most polished, but not in a slick way. Another California favorite, Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats produced it and everything Eric touches turns to gold. The opening track “Paradise,” is an ode to southern California (NOT a vagina – although Matt has other songs that might be about vaginas.) “Let Yourself Get Down” is a heady, heavy jam, and you can’t miss the bonus track “She’s Your Baby.” Matt’s one of my favorite live acts and I miss seeing him perform. He’s one of the best guitar players I’ve ever seen and deserves a lot more credit for how sickly he shreds.

Roberto: When I listen to Candy, I can’t help but draw a connection to the early Tyde albums, especially Once, albeit with a lot more shredding. It’s got that signature West Coast feel presented in this dreamy indie rock format. There’s a stoned out bliss that permeates tracks like “It’s in My Mind” and “She’s Your Baby” that I find really inviting. I also dig the rougher garage aesthetic on extended jams like “Other Places.” Matt Adams is a really talented dude, and anything he has his hands on is worth checking out.

Listen to Candy

Parting Lines – See You On The Other Side (2018)

Lara: Trevor Beld Jimenez and Tim Ramsey are Parting Lines, two tremendously talented musicians who, at the time of this record’s release, may have been better known for playing with other people, like Fruit Bats, Vetiver, Kacey Johansing, and their earlier project, the many-piece folk collective Tall Tales and the Silver Lining – but that’s changing, particularly in the case of Trevor who just released an excellent solo record. This album is more uptempo, fresh-faced pop with driving hooks and catchy riffs. “Out on a Highway” is a favorite of mine, as is “Black Tint Sunset.” Trevor’s lyrics are light and sincere, and Tim’s such an elegant guitarist, understated but purposeful. An A+ record start to finish – especially recommended for folks who may shy away from the twangier shades of the SoCal scene. 

Roberto: These guys weren’t on my radar until I scoped Trevor Beld Jimenez’ solo album from last year, which has a lot of great songs on it. Given both members’ history playing with other renown acts, it’s no wonder their sound is so fully formed here. Lara pretty much hits it on the head – this is top tier pop-rock. Pedal steel and organs are supplemented by twinkling synths and pianos and crystal-clear guitar lines that bring to mind Fleetwood Mac and Big Star. The songwriting is sturdy too. I get big Tom Petty vibes from Trevor’s simple and endearing style.

Listen to See You on the Other Side

Skiffle Players – Skiff (2018)

Lara: I love to talk about seeing the Skiffle Players a few months before this album came out, and how all members had these big, shit-eating grins on their faces. Sort of an impromptu supergroup formed at a FolkYEAH! event out of necessity, the band included Cass McCombs, Farmer Dave Scher, Neal Casal, Dan Horne, and Aaron Sperske. Their first record, Skifflin’, was really magical itself with its interpretations of traditional folk songs like “Coo Coo Bird” and “Omie WIse.” They let their hair down with Skiff, though, with all members taking turns writing and singing. It’s a great singalong album that I’d do just about anything to see them play again. The levity really comes out on the foot-stomper “The Law Offices of Dewey, Cheatum and Howe,” “Long Horns, Long Necks, Long Legs,” and “Harsh Toke. There are some real moments of beauty, too, particularly on the songs Neal sings, “Los Angeles Alleyway,” penned by Cass, and “You’ll Miss It When It’s Gone.” I don’t think this record got its due – in fact, I’m guilty of this. I haven’t listened to it in quite a while so I think it’s time to put it on again, right now. 

Roberto: This is a group I’ve always been aware of but not overly familiar with. In absorbing this album and their absurdly stacked lineup, you could definitely make the case that they are criminally underrated. The playing is obviously off the charts, but what really stands out to me about this record is how well the songs are put together. There is a subtle virtuosity to groovy jams like “Local Boy” and the instrumental cuts (“Herbamera”) are fantastic, but the most memorable moments come when that musicianship backs up great songwriting and melodies. “Cara,” “You’ll Miss It When It’s Gone,” and “Los Angeles Alleyway” are all ace cuts.

Listen to Skiff

WYNDHAM – Fistful of Stars

Roberto: I originally discovered this project due to Wyndham’s affiliation with Lola Kirke. I believe she referred to this album as “sinfully good,” which is an endorsement I can fully get behind. Fistful of Stars is a melting pot of musical styles; you get everything from danceable Bossa nova grooves to soul-infused rock and roll, and the production is smooth and glossy, giving each song a warm colorful sheen that amplifies the lush array of sounds. Wyndham’s writing is infectious in a subtle way too. Songs like “Clementine”and “Temporary Tattoo” are full of mantras and sweet turns of phrase that linger in your head long after they’re gone.

Lara: I’d never heard this one either before Roberto mentioned it, and immediately loved it. It’s got some great classic California elements, and a swinging, bluesy groove on songs like “Time to Kill” and “Soul.” Really impressive playing – the entire album has that cosmic, mystical vibe without feeling too put-on or over-the-top. It’s the groove, man, you either have it or you don’t, you can’t buy it or invent it. Wyndham’s got it.

Listen to Fistful of Stars

Leslie Stevens – Sinner (2019)

Roberto: I love this record because it’s got more of a universal country sound, which I think speaks to the depth of the SoCal scene and how the bands here appreciate and are able to interpret the origins of the music they’re playing. Jonathan Wilson made this album sound amazing and Leslie is such a damn good songwriter, I only wish we had more material from her. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for her, as she was the first show I ever caught at Pappy & Harriet’s. That this album is so exceptional justified how excited I was about her performance. Hard to deny the quality of the songs here. Each lyric feels precise and vital in the context of its song.

Lara: Leslie has this incredibly unique, ethereal voice unlike any heard in the country canon. Her songwriting is exquisite, raw and earnest on songs like “Falling” and “Depression and Descent.” I was initially quite surprised at how minimalistic this record was considering that it came upon the heels of producer Jonathan Wilson’s maximalist dream Rare Birds, but subtle pedal steel arcs and guitar licks serve the song and showcase Leslie’s lyrics and dreamy vocal performance.

Listen to Sinner

Mapache – From Liberty Street (2020)

Roberto: I completely missed this album when it came out and for that matter, am extremely late to the Mapache hype train, but I’m so glad I finally got around to these guys (kudos to Petal Motel for the constant plugs). Their talent is off the charts. I love the Spanish and Tex-Mex flavor of their sound and the way their voices intertwine with the mesh of acoustic guitars. The arrangements are intricate yet easily accessible at the same time. One of the nicest perks about this project is how many tracks there are. They’re all short and sweet, and I never want it to end. Tough to pick favorites but “Liberty Street Blues” is one of the prettiest songs I heard last year and the harmonies on “I Just Steal Away and Pray” are to die for.

Lara: Mapache’s the smallest band to encompass the Los Angeles sound – and more specifically, the Echo Park sound – in such a big way. Two guitars, a resonator, two voices, and producer Dan Horne at the dials results in sun-filled magic; the sound of secret stairs, street tacos, strolling through the hills, sun falling by way of the Hollywood sign in the distance. Sam and Clay, two Angeleno natives, demonstrate a true love and understanding of the culture of the neighborhood, celebrating rather than attempting to imitate or capitalize. “Cowboy” makes me feel a bit seen, but I love it. “Cherry Barb,” “To Play for All of You,” “See Through,” there really isn’t a song on this album I don’t love.

Listen to From Liberty Street

Victoria Bailey – Jesus, Red Wine & Patsy Cline (2020)

Lara: I’d never heard of Victoria Bailey before Roberto told me about her, and I’m so glad he did. I love music for music lovers – this is it, with no shortage of name-dropping, and odes to the thrill of hearing pedal steel, playing songs on the jukebox, and the pure enjoyment of listening to the music. You can tell Victoria knows her stuff and really loves country music. The writing is supremely clever, each song is an homage – whether to Hank (“Ramblin’ Man,”) Waylon, Willie and John Prine too (“Outlaws,”) or even the Stones (“Honky Tonk Woman”). “Skid Row” is the ultimate California Country song – celebrating the Los Angeleno sound, proving once and for all that country music isn’t just for southerners.

Roberto: Victoria Bailey takes her cues from the best: Loretta, Dolly, Emmylou, Buck, Waylon, and Willie. This album has a nice mix of classic country and western ballads and swingin’ honky tonk grooves that call back to that old Bakersfield boogie. Victoria’s voice flutters over the top of it all with style and ease. The instrumental interplay is a standout quality and I love how prominent the fiddles and pedal steel are in the mix. This is country music at its best: steeped in traditional sounds, delivered with a fresh and earnest voice. The melody on “Honky Tonk Woman” is instant ear candy and “The Beginning” has a golden West Coast feel.

Listen to Jesus, Red Wine & Patsy Cline

Pacific Range – High Upon The Mountain (2020)

Lara: PacRange carries the torch, representing the next generation of the Californiana sound. Weaving together an intricate and excellent blend of genres including surf rock, country, and jam band music, these guys put on an incredible live show, putting their hearts into it every single night. This album is so coastal and cool, but can seamlessly resonate with any listener anywhere. The sequencing on High Upon the Mountain is stellar too – starting with these (relatively) bite-sized absolute gems before laying into the more extensive jams. My favorites on this record change all the time but right now, “Rainbow Song” with its gorgeous, precision slide guitar “Santa Monica” and “Comin’ After You” are all really high up there. I miss seeing these guys so much.

Roberto: Pacific Range has a laid back swagger to them that’s damn near irresistible. High Upon The Mountain is one of those records you hear once and know the band is fantastic live. It sounds like The Grateful Dead if they were from San Diego instead of the Bay or Allman Brothers Band through a rose-colored Santa Monica filter. That’s not a knock on the band’s authenticity either. Seamus Turner, Nate Ward, and company can flat out play and they have an unreal combination of composition and improvisational skills. I feel like I could take anyone I know, regardless of personal musical preference, to see these guys perform and have a great time. The grooves on the opening track, “Heartbeat of Change,” and “Studio Walk” are wonderful tone-setters and a good sampler of what to expect from the record, but I also love the breezy beach serenade “Guiding the Mast.”

Listen to High Upon The Mountain

Pearl Charles – Magic Mirror (2021)

Roberto: It’s barely January but I already know this is going to be one of my most played albums of 2021. This flat out knocked my socks off the first time I heard it. Everything about it is so impressive. The songwriting is super catchy and strong conceptually, Pearl’s voice sounds great, and her band is air-tight. You can tell they have amazing chemistry. This album has enough twang to fit in the larger cosmic country bubble but I can’t get over how funky and infectious it is. At their core, these are really great pop songs bolstered by excellent taste and musicianship. “What I Need” has all the feels of those undeniable Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan songs from soft-rock’s golden ’70s era and “Take Your Time” sounds like it’s from a kaleidoscopic cowboy dream. This album is perfectly set up to be a big breakout.

Lara: Agreed that Pearl always works with the best of the best, she has a great eye and ear. I love this disco moment for her, a slight departure from the folksier roots of past records – but it feels like a very natural and fitting sound for her shimmery vibe and voice. I know Pearl fans have been eagerly anticipating a new record and they won’t be disappointed. The album ABBA wishes they made! “Don’t Feel Like Myself” is one of the most compelling songs on the album, an honest, mature tune that pairs well after the more pastiche and surefire hits like “Only For Tonight” and “What I Need.”

Listen to Magic Mirror

Additional Recommendations (listed chronologically): Tashaki Miyaki – The Dream; Lola Kirke – Heart Head West; Cave Flowers – Cave Flowers; Medicine Hat – Fences; Jesse Daniel – Rollin’ On; Nocona – Los Dos; Austin McCutchen – How Many Miles; Veronica Bianqui – Veronica Bianqui

Purchase the 20th anniversary reissue of Beachwood Sparks’ debut album out now on Curation Records.

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