Sparks: Hippopotamus EURO CD 
- Probably Nothing
- Missionary Position
- Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)
- Scandinavian Design
- Giddy Giddy
- What The Hell Is It This Time?
- I Wish You Were Fun
- So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was The Play?
- When You’re A French Director (featuring Leos Carax)
- The Amazing Mr. Repeat
- A Little Bit Like Fun
- Life With The Macbeths
Can it really have been over two years since the last Sparks album came out? I remember saying on the day of release:
“And I find myself in a city where I guarantee I will not have the ability to walk into a store of my choice and plunk down the better part of $20 for the privilege.”
Well, you know what they say about famous last words. As it turned out, I happened to visit Harvest records on Saturday, September 9th, 2017 and there it was for the princely sum of $10.99! I’ve actually owned this from the day after release. What’s it like?
It began with a deceptively classic slice of Gershwin-esque pop like “Probably Nothing” featuring just Ron on piano and Russell singing. Maybe this was written on the “Son Of Two Hands/One Mouth” tour?” In any case. it clearly showed the influence of American Tin Pan Alley on the bad boys who grew up wanting to be in a rock band any way. The manner in which Ron Mael could investigate a potentially trifling subject like something forgotten from the way to the brain to the lips and invest it with a depth of meaning and emotional ambiguity marked him as a songwriter’s songwriter.
Then the next track started… “Missionary Position.” Only Ron Mael would think to expound on the least adventurous form of sexual congress with this hilarious song of praise for the glory of the destination reached instead of the trip itself. The arrangement there was as plummy a string-laden Beatles pastiche as possible, but please. Give me this over ELO any day. The single, “Edith Piaf [Said It Better Than Me]” followed and while it may be construed as the band throwing raw meat at their French fan base, the Gallic melancholy marked it as something a little more complex, as well as a bold move for a single. Why not watch the beautiful animated video below?
The music box precision of “Scandinavian Design” may not be the music equivalent of Bauhaus furnishings [maybe John Foxx’s “Metamatic” comes closer to that aim?] but it forms an ornate backdrop to this perfectly sculpted meditation on the lure of purity and minimalism. The singer’s lady friend was normally “some guy’s concubine” but when she has her fill of “chandeliers and bric-a-brac” she comes over for some R+R even if they have to sleep on the wooden floors. All the singer had was a table and two chairs, but what a table and two chairs, obviously. The glockenspiel and sleigh bells lent it all a christmassy air even as the four bars of the harpsichord solo in the middle eight went for Liberace territory. Perhaps a bit over the top, but it was countered with the twangy guitar samples in the well arranged coda.
Back in 2006, Sparks wrote a throwaway track called “Here Kitty” on their “Hello Young Lovers” album that followed “L’il Beethoven®” [and brilliantly]. I can’t help but think that it has finally come home to roost in the form of the mesmerizing “Giddy Giddy.” The highly structured meter of the song wrapped the repetitive structure of the music and lyrics around it and squeezed like an anaconda until I felt ready to pass out. This song really was a call back to the “L’il Beethoven®” methodology of the band that they’ve investigated thoroughly since that album. The repetition was still there, though colored with with a vast array of “hip” rhythmic styles with the song starting as drum + bass, then morphing into a variety of hip-hip beats before crossing the line, just barely, into dubstep. This one’s bee hammering in my skull [to my delight] all morning.
But yesterday, it was the amazing song “What The Hell Is It This Time” that got the mental iPod® nod. Knowing The Maels, one might assume that this was a typically Sparkian riposte to an annoying friend or lover. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The song was no less than the frazzled middle management of Heaven beseeching Mankind to lay off the petty requests; He has a LOT on his plate so don’t be surprised if your small potatoes don’t cut it. That was, until the middle of What The Hell is It This Time? song, where He took center stage and unloaded on Mankind; all of this couched in a magnificent cinematic soundscape of sampled strings and the distorted guitars of Dean Menta.
“What the hell is it this time?
It’s you again, it’s you again,
You get on my nerves
What the hell is it this time?
I’ve billions to serve,
You get on my nerves” – “What The Hell is It This Time?”
Only Sparks give us such pithy points of view for their songs.
I can’t recall ever hearing anything like reggae from Sparks even though they were signed to Island Records during their early Imperial Period. [for those counting, I think Sparks may have had as many as four of them in their 50 year career…] But “Unaware” was surely built on the reggae rhythms from the house that Blackwell built even as Russell was trying a unique vocal phrasing that I’d not heard form his before, abetted by some reverb effects that were in the red for this band. Usually, Russel can be counted on to build multi-part harmonies of his glorious voice but this was something entirely different.
Next: …Yet More Formalism