Sparks – Two Hands, One Mouth (2013)

sparksNote: I am currently writing a couple of “anniversary” features for The Quietus, including one on Sparks.  Which reminded me that I actually wrote a review of their recent live album that I didn’t finish on time and therefore never got published.  So here’s one from the recent past…

What a perfect title for a Sparks album. It sounds dirty, but it really isn’t. If you’ve been following this band for the last forty years (and if you haven’t, what’s your deal?), you know that this is just how these guys do things. While most bands love to code sexuality into ham­fisted metaphors (because, y’know, chicks dig metaphors), Sparks prefer to write songs that sound rather obscene on their surface but are actually quite clever. Two Hands, One Mouth refers to the set­up here; for the first time in their career, the Maelmen are going as a duo; no drummer, no guitarist, no computers, just Russell’s pipes and Ronald on the Roland.

This is not really a shock if you’re a fan; Sparks have always been about change, or doing old things in new guises. They’ve done New Wave, they’ve done glam, they’ve hooked up with Giorgio Moroder, they’ve inspired the Pet Shop Boys, they’ve imitated the Pet Shop Boys, they released an album called Balls, and they’ve pulled a rather stunning late­career comeback by throwing in orchestration and multitracking the vocals to an ridiculous degree. The constants: Ron’s endless reservoir of bouncy melodies, lyrics that range from hilarious to absurd, and Russell’s naturally high­pitched voice and killer falsetto. On this live album (their first, after 22 studio ones!), that’s all you get.

Concerns about whether or not the grandeur that Sparks always exemplified at their best should be alleviated right from the start ­ “Sparks Overture” is about three minutes of Ron going through a run of the Mael’s most well­known tunes, many of which get played throughout the set. Ron’s keyboard has a “chorus” setting which usually plays a string sound that follows his left hand, while the piano melodies ring off the walls of the theater. There is often some delay involved to give things a little thicker sound. This arrangement requires him to re­write every tune in the setlist, as he’s got to play both the lead and the rhythm. Russell has a lot of weight on his shoulders as well; with no guitar or drums to hide behind, his voice suddenly has a lot to carry, plus he’s got to do the tricky call­and­response bits that Sparks was so fond of all by himself. So essentially the performance is an exercise in reductionism; these limitations force them to chuck some melodies and get rid of the harmonies. By losing the glam, the disco beats, the digital sound, and the manufactured vocal parts, we get to hear the songs just as songs. At the same time, it requires a degree of perfectionism; if Ron hits a bum note, or Russell’s falsetto starts to falter, the song is ruined. There are no safety nets.

This is really a win/­win situation for both the band and their fans; while most live albums (especially late career ones) tend to be cash­ins where you get to hear well­ rehearsed bands recreate what they did in the studio at a slightly different tempo, Two Hands, One Mouth is more akin to their 1997 album Plagiarism, in that the thrill is more about the total overhaul the material gets. That it’s live is just a bonus (plus, you get to hear the audience clap along from time to time, and it seems they are rather aware that they too cannot mess up the beat). For the band, it’s an opportunity to again challenge themselves and take a leap of faith, much like they did on many of their classic albums.

In 2008, the band fulfilled the fantasy of every fanatic of every group ever by playing every single one of cover during a series of 21 live shows, capping it all off with the live debut of their new album, Exotic Creatures of the Deep. All this was done to highlight the personality behind each album and to discover some lost gems (many of these songs had simply never been performed before); Sparks have known to jump a trend or three, and as such, their sound has taken on some radical changes through the years. On Two Hands, One Mouth, the highlight is on the similarities; a song like “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us” stands right alongside newer material like “Good Morning” or “Dick down style, it is impossible to pick out which selections are newer and which date back to the Nixon administration. While some of the Sparks studio albums suffer from bad production choices or are mired in digital hell, the music here feels timeless.

It’s hard to say too much about what’s better or worse; like Plagiarism before it, the reconstructions are often so radical that both versions have their merits. The stripped down arrangements wind up nerfing a lot of the big moments;­ they nail the first half of “Hospitality on Parade”, but the payoff, where the guitars crunch along to the beat, is obviously absent. Ditto for “My Baby’s Taking Me Home”, which remains hypnotic but feels repetitive. “Dick Around”, perhaps the highlight of the entire Sparks catalog, only gets an airing of about half its original runtime. ­ With so much instrumentation and so many overdubs, it would be impossible to capture the thrill with only two men on stage (what’s left is still quite enjoyable, it must be said). The approach works best on the compositions that managed to be ornate without having to scale up too much; ­ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” and “Sherlock Holmes” sound fantastic, while jauntier songs like “At Home, At Work, At Play” or “This Town…” do well by riding a wealth of incredible hooks all the way to the end. Songs that originally used gimmicky arrangements like “Under the Table with Her” are given makeovers that expose them as the great compositions they really were all along.

That said, arguably the best moments come during the encore, with two selections from No. 1 in Heaven; ­ the title track and “Beat the Clock”. For these songs, Ron tunes himself to a lush disco­synth and hammers the hell out it. Forget the idea that this is a new take on Sparks;­ this is a new take on dance music altogether. The sound is huge; even the little key changes are massive, and Russell works like a madman to keep the spirit intact. On “Beat the Clock” he has to constantly alternate between the main melody and the rhythmic underpinning of “you gotta beat the clock, you gotta beat the clock”. On the final song, written specifically for these shows, he sings “two hands, one mouth, that’s all I need to satisfy you”.

Despite the confidence expressed there, Ron’s brief speech at the end (which is a trip in itself; ­ he sounds just like his brother!) makes it seem as though he really had no idea how a show like this would be received. But that’s Sparks – regardless of whether it works or not, they at least have to try.

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