[…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.
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