[…continued from last post]
Like many, I was astonished when the band seemingly came out of nowhere with their game-changing opus “L’il Beethoven” in 2002. I got the feeling that Ron had been listening to a lot of Philip Glass and light opera [with a little Faith No More] thrown into the mix, but it imbued their songs moving forward with a penchant for serial repetition where the music was concerned. The emphasis on stasis instead of movement was perhaps the band reflecting on the techno movement of the 90s. After all, their albums of the 90s were either informed by techno [especially “Balls”] or were an excursion into strings [“Plagiarism”] and orchestration. By 2002, they united these two threads into their own self-genre.
The title track to “Hippopotamus” the biggest throwback to the “L’il Beethoven” methodology was the title track itself. It was a rigidly formalized light classical, choral construction with lyrics that were picked for their ability to rhyme [sort of] with the loaded word “Hippopotamus.” By the time they had dragged Titus Andronicus into the song one could only laugh in wonder. Ever relevant was the “lady with an abacus” who ultimately figured in the song. She “looked Chinese” but Russel was quick to add the caveat “not that I’m prejudiced [x3], no, not me.”
The throbbing rhythms of “Bummer” recalled those of “Perfume” from “Hello Young Lovers.” I especially liked how the title hook for four bars in the middle was a sample of someone from some forgotten 60s/early 70s movie saying the word “bummer” where Russell was dropped completely from the mix at that point. The upbeat pop razzmatazz of “I Wish You Were Fun” was fully capable of getting stuck in my head for long hours of the day. Ron’s piano playing on this was particularly jaunty and it’s telling that the outro of the song belonged to him and his 88 keys.
The rock urgency of “So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was The Play” used nervous tension to illuminate its meditation on a protagonist who is floundering at his own breakup scene due to his inattention to the events unfolding around him with the harshest metaphor possible as the title chorus. It may be inferred that this lack of attention to detail is what placed him in this precarious position in the first place. At this point I am contractually bound to state that “chicks, dig, dig, d-i-g, dig, dig, metaphor,” but even so, the Hell of loneliness may yet be one’s fate.
Did I say yesterday that Sparks were throwing raw meat at their French fan base on “Edith Piaf [Said It Better Than Me]?” Then on “When You’re A French Director” they were roundly mocking the most specialized of French stereotypes while doing the same again by including idiosyncratic director Leos [“Holy Motors”] Carax in a duet with Russell relegated to support vocals! The wheezing Gallic chanson veered beyond self-parody as they even included Carax playing accordion on the lurching number. The lyrics mocked not only the impenetrability of art cinema, but also the alleged indifference to fame to its practitioners, as one verse speculated how nicely “un César” [a.k.a. the French equivalent of an Oscar®] might just fit on that shelf over there. The brief song made a hilarious point in under three minutes. I should point out that Sparks have written the story and music to Carax’ latest film, “Annette” which will star Adam Driver and Marion Cotilliard; his first English-language film. So they have already, actively participated in The Seduction of Leos Carax!
The “Balls” album featured the brother’s response to the relentless nature of techno in the 90s. That sonic thread was picked up once again for “The Amazing Mr. Repeat,” a ribald tale of an aberrant specimen who had the uncanny ability to have no sexual “downtime” in a song that was as incessant as the music itself was. Of course, the subject of the song felt misunderstood and exploited for his abilities even while the neighborhood girls queued up to receive his ministrations.
“L’il Beethoven” operated at both ends of the lyrical density spectrum. It had repetitive music with either a simple lyric line repeated endlessly [see: “My Baby’s Taking Me Home”] or with densely packed lyrics [see: “Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls”]. “A Little Bit Like Fun” stood that conceit on its head by matching glorious, almost psychedelic music [especially the intro that sounded like nothing I’ve ever heard Sparks sound like] with a massed chorus of Russell singing the zen-like lyric.
“Life With the Macbeths” closed the album with the third Shakespeare reference [“Bummer” also referenced The Bard] as an opera duet featuring Russell sharing the mic with soprano Rebecca Sjöwall, who had previously sung on the brother’s “Ingmar Bergman” opus. This amazing song extrapolated “Macbeth” into a “reality TV” show to stunning comic effect. Part of the stunning was accomplished by soprano Sjöwall reaching C6 on the lyric “soar” [obviously] and “Score” at the song’s climax; having held back throughout the rest of the song.
On early listens, this album seemed like a casual throwback to the earlier Sparks style but the more I listen to it, the more facets of detail I can discern. True, the live band here, Steve Nistor on drums and the steadfast Dean Menta [Faith No More] on guitars and bass, gave more of a band vibe to this album than their 90s material. Ron also played a lot of piano here in addition to synthesizers, so there was certainly a variety of sound design to the fifteen songs. The tunes had brief running times, so the album was 55 minutes long even with the plethora of material. But it seemed shorter. Because these songs belied the fact that this was Sparks 23rd album in twice as many years.
Sparks have managed to forge an identity that is singularly theirs in the world of pop music. The music here may not sound exactly like the band that recorded “Kimono My House” or “Number One In Heaven” but the artistic P.O.V. can definitely be traced back throughout the thread of their career. What distinguishes Sparks, especially now, is their obeisance to the notion of craftsmanship.
That sense of commitment to craftsmanship certainly glows throughout this work. I get the feeling that The Maels grew up in a household where Gilbert + Sullivan, Stephen Sondheim, and The Gershwins were always on play, and yet they also saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan at the right age as well. It all must have informed their vision of what popular art should be capable of. That they can create music like “Hippopotamus” after nearly 50 years going shames their peers, which it must be said, they have certainly outlasted. I can count possibly four imperial eras within their career arc and can think of no other artists who can approach that level of delightful invention [and re-invention] and accomplishment. Hell, their latest imperial period has lasted 17 years with no signs of ebbing! That’s better than most artists entire careers! I would definitely put this down to their commitment to craftsmanship and its adjacent work ethic, which is evident in spades in their music.
– 30 –
Not only did the Mael brothers watch the Beatles on Sullivan, they also attended The Big TNT Show:
Ron was also the football quarterback for the high school that was the subject of the book Whatever Happened to the Class of ’65?
I haven’t picked up Hippopotamus yet (I asked for it for Christmas), but I did get the 3 CD Best Of, which sounds great.
One of the most amazing things about Sparks is how they have a career going around 50 yrs. now w/o any reported conflicts between Ron & Russell a la the Everlys, the Davies through the Gallaghers, especially considering the relative lack of commercial success compared to the other “brother” acts.
diskojoe – Maybe if they had that level of fraternal success they too, would be at each other’s throats! Their more nuanced success; moderated throughout their long career was probably a good thing for them.
Here’s a thread from a blog I used to read about the moderator’s resistance to the charms of Sparks:
diskojoe – I can sort of understand Sparks reticence. I came to them in 1981 and by then they already had ten albums. I felt I had “missed my chance” so I sort of ignored Sparks for another decade. After all, most bands suck after ten years, right? Even though I thought that “Tips For Teens” was pretty ace. I bought my first Sparks CD in 1991. “Interior Design.” Their worst album, but you rarely saw Sparks on CD from ’85-’91, and after ’85 it was CDs for me. I didn’t really start buying their albums until the mid-late 90s! I actually saw them in Akron CD stores so I bit the bullet and bought one. Bottom line? The more Sparks I listen to the greater my admiration as I see just how comparatively consistent they have managed to be even as I recognize that I started with their worst album.
My interest in Sparks started when a friend gave me a homemade compilation tape back in 1977. A couple of years later another friend got a copy of #1 in Heaven which we both liked. Just like you, it took until 1991 for me to take the plunge @ get them on CD. In my case, it was the Rhino compiliation that just came out. I was satisfied w/that for a while, but. I did pick up their albums starting w/the Island ones. I did get Lil Beethoven, but unwisely got rid of it in a purge. My New Year’s resolution is to get any Sparks CDs that I can find.
I will say that the songs played from Hippopotamus, when I saw them in London in September of 2017 (wow, time does past quickly!), were right at home with classic Sparks songs. One of the highlights was Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me). They followed it with the cautionary drama of Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth, which I thought was brilliant.
Like the Monk, the song “Tips for Teens” was what turned my head toward the band, and although I was never an active collector they are one of the rare combos that have not, to the best of my limited knowledge, written a really bad song. Everything I’ve heard from them has been exciting and rewarding, and my collection now spans from Kimono My House (which I was grateful to see them perform in full (and more!) in concert in LA a few years back, to Hippopotamus, but is nowhere near complete. It was a great honour to pass on a few words of praise to them after a show in Atlanta even more years back that Mr and Mrs Monk also attended! I find them to be one of the most delightfully quirky groups in the whole of rock.
PS. To answer the question asked in the photo caption, that is definitely a vintage-2003 Apple Keyboard (109 keys), not the Apple Pro Keyboard (which had black keys). It’s sitting next to an Apple Studio Display, which dates from 1998 I believe.
As if I needed another reason to love these guys!
chasinvictoria – My G5 2004 MacPro had the white keys in the clear frame. I had one of these at home and work in 2005. Another terrible Apple keyboard. Pure mush.
I only own a couple of Sparks releases but definitely need to get more. I have the compilation from about eight years ago, also ‘L’il Beethoven’ and just bought the three cd reissue of ‘Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins’ which is excellent. Sonically that album is very similar to the Pet Shop Boys ‘Very’ from the previous year. There’s very little Sparks material I’ve heard that I don’t like. It’s brilliant that they are still releasing such fantastic music so late into their career.
“A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing” was my introduction in the mid seventies. My musical tastes were never the same again. All my high school friends thought my musical tastes were “really weird” back then. They were so trend setting and ahead of their time. Now they are timeless. I can almost smell the cigarette smoke on French Director. As always, they tell really great stories in a short period of time.
Mel Creighton –
You, sir, said a mouthful there. Sparks not only tell great stories, they populate the story with memorable, singular characters who are nothing like what we have to endure in popular culture.