And, boy, is the band passionate. The loping ballad "Hearts Mend" and woozy waltzes like "The Old Manatee" could be outtakes from the Gram Parsons-era Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, while the tougher groove of "The Sun Surrounds Me" recalls Buffalo Springfield. On the other hand, Once We Were Trees is no strict period piece -- unlike Beachwood Sparks' self-titled debut of last year. Here, there are '50s touches, like the reverberating Fleetwoods harmonies on "Banjo Press Conference"; a touch of Motown in the catchy, arching chorus of "The Hustler"; and dollops of subtle feedback and brittleness that betray the band members' roots in '90s indie rock acts like Further and the Lilys.
But the oddest feature of the album is monolithic, sure to disorient purists. Two-thirds of the way through the 15-track, variegated retro journey, the Sparks allow their bloodshot eyes to wander away from their hippie Gypsy goddess and in the direction of ... Sade. Yes, that Sade, the classy soul chanteuse whose sweetest taboos probably don't include a date in a VW bus. The band takes her most recent hit, "By Your Side," and transforms it into lilting, searing pop rock that -- in a rare reversal of the usual equation -- is more soulful than the R&B original. The song's straightforward pledge of loyalty lends purpose to singer Chris Gunst's sweet, breathless style, which often conveys lyrics that get as hippie-dippy as the album's title suggests. On "By Your Side" the band lets everyone into its vintage love affair, even if you've never heard Moby Grape, much less inhaled. Could it be a hint of things to come?