Look, 2017 was a garbage year and I think we’d all just rather move on. Nazis roamed the streets, giant hurricanes ravaged densely populated areas, half of California is on fire, all of your favorite people who didn’t die last year got outed as sex offenders, and President Donald Trump managed to gut social programs and mortgage our children’s futures so he could give the 1-percenters a tax cut they absolutely do not need. Worst of all, Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone, giving the Minnesota Freakin’ Vikings the opportunity to be the first team to play in a home-field Super Bowl. The silver lining? Well, we’re not in a nuclear war, so that’s good at least. Anyway, I guess some good music was released this year, and as usual my “year-end” list is not so much a list at all as it is a haphazard lumping of various albums that I mostly already wrote about. I do not really have an album of the year, usually when I declare such a thing I wind up wondering what the hell I was thinking a couple weeks later. But there was a lot of good stuff, most of which I haven’t heard, but hey. Only so many hours in the day. So here are my end-of-the-year awards – as usual, links to better, more well-thought out opinions when they exist:
Often it’s more shocking to realize a record is one decade old as opposed to several. Certainly there will be much blogging about the records turning 50 this year – Revolver, Pet Sounds, Blonde on Blonde, and so on. Not a whole lot of those bloggers were around for those albums original releases, I’m sure. But here’s one I clearly remember, being both the album I anticipated and listened to the most in 2006. There’s something remarkable about that of course, given that Sparks were firmly in that part of their career where you do not typically expect greatness to occur. But there ain’t a whole lot typical about Sparks.
Ahhh, to be Sparks in 1974. The duo of Russell and Ron Mael have spent their career, spanning 46 years and counting, constantly reinventing themselves and showing off new guises. Through it all they’ve done albums that were great, some that were not-so-great, and some that were just okay. They’ve had their share of commercial successes and dry spells. They’ve innovated and they’ve borrowed. But 1974 was the year where everything went right.
Sparks formed in 1968 in L.A. as Halfnelson, but formally changed their name in 1972. At this point the band was a 5-piece; the Maels, Earle Mankey and his brother James, plus drummer Harley Feinstein. They attracted the attention of Todd Rundgren who produced their first album, a fascinating slice of oddball and sarcastic pop. But neither that nor follow-up A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing managed to sell much, so the Maels ditched the band and flew out to the UK in order to join the burgeoning glam scene. It was an odd and reckless move, but in retrospect the best one of their career.
For in the UK, Sparks struck gold – here they recruited a new band, consisting of Martin Gordon, Adrian Fisher, and Norman Diamond. More importantly, they’d found an audience, they found inspiration, and they found their sound. From here out, the Maels would be the band’s focus; certainly, they were the standout members before, but their first two albums did have songwriting contributions from the Mankeys, and all five members appeared in band photos. And why not – they had loads of songwriting talent, looked like models, and gave the band a unique identity. You had Russell, with wild long hair, a flamboyant stage manner, and an incredible falsetto (sometimes even approaching the Klaus Nomi zone!), leading those who only heard the band via radio to believe he actually was a woman. Then you had keyboardist Ron, who was nearly the opposite; with short, neatly trimmed hair and a moustache, who was reserved, and subtle (the letters on his Roland were rearranged to spell RONALD, which is actually the thing that made me fall for the band in the first place, before I’d heard any of their music).
Ron was also the band’s principal songwriter, and he was on a roll when ’74 rolled around (so much so that Kimono was only the first of two excellent albums released that year). Ron has a unique gift for songwriting; his music can be hyperactive and goofy, it can be punchy and massive, or it can be symphonic and complex. Sometimes, it’s all of these things at once. Even more notable sometimes are his lyrics – often by turns cruel, sarcastic, and dirty, but nearly always hilarious. Just look at some of the subjects here – Romeo lamenting the fact that Juliet chickened out of their suicide pact (“Here in Heaven”), a man trying to land a foreign woman despite not figuring out what language she speaks (“Hasta Mañana, Monsieur”), hating the holidays because they prevent you from being degenerate (“Thank God It’s Not Christmas”), or why you ought to lose your virginity to someone who is experienced and willing to give feedback (“Amateur Hour”).
Of course, this is par for the course when it comes to Sparks; their lyrics are always great. What is a little unique for them is finding such a consistent and special sound. Kimono My House does not exactly pull any special tricks – there are a few strings and saxes here and there, and there are some multitracked vocals, but about 95% of this could’ve been performed live by the 5-piece band. Still, they don’t quite sound like anyone else; they come out with guns blazing (literally, as it turns out), with a hard-hitting, guitar-heavy sound that pounds and bashes through nearly every song (the sultry closer “Equator” is sort of an exception).
The main difference between Sparks and any other glam rock band were of course the Maels themselves. Ron’s keyboards are not exactly front-and-center as they’d usually be, but they do feel like they’re in the driver’s seat. He either plays full melody lines or just bangs on a chord or two for a while, but it’s clear that most of these songs were first composed there. The music is often brash and unsubtle, but there’s a classical element to all of this; you could play all of this with just piano if you had the chops. As such it’s difficult to figure out exactly what genre this is; it’s catchy and fun like pop, layered and symphonic like prog, wild and flamboyant like glam. That of course is where Russell comes in; his voice is powerful and rather extreme, as he remains in falsetto through the entire album. Combined with the carnival-esque keyboards it really makes their music stand apart from everything else; Sparks are a love-it-or-hate-it sort of band and they never tried to reign in their goofiness.
This, by the way, should have been a godsend in 1974. At the time the charts were full of dreary, midtempo pop songs, and critically respected groups like King Crimson and Genesis were starting to put out dead-serious opuses like Red and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It must’ve been a shock to hear such a fun, heavy, balls-out album like this in the midst of it (I will point out that similar tactics worked for Van Halen four years later). Audiences responded in kind; “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us” (UK #2) and “Amateur Hour” (UK #7) both got significant radio play.
I have no idea if anyone considered these guys to be gimmicky at the time. After all, you wouldn’t exactly hear a lot of falsetto and carnival organ in those days (you don’t now either, but there are certainly fewer stones left to turn in 2014). And you certainly wouldn’t know what to think of Ron’s dangerously short moustache – we don’t even know what to do with Michael Jordan’s today (I think Ron wears it better). Still, Sparks are so obviously brilliant on this one that you can really forgive them for just about anything. 40 years later, Kimono is a staple on “All Time Top-25” and “Best of the 70s” lists; it’s full of personality and every song is genius, and most importantly it still feels relevant today. It sounds way too advanced and clean to be from the mid-70’s; like Roxy Music, listening to it the first time now should inspire a pretty strong “so THAT’s where it all came from” reaction. A lot of bands certainly took notice; most immediately you have Queen, who nicked a fair bit from Kimono. Later on the dancier and goofier elements to their music would manifest themselves in the Pet Shop Boys and Mr. Bungle, respectively. Layer a bunch of their songs on top of each other and you have Cardiacs. Feed them into a MIDI controller and you get Max Tundra. Overdrive the guitars and add the word “party” and you’ll get Andrew W.K. And so on.
Sadly, things started to fall apart quickly. As great as the Maelmen were, it was the band of Gordon, Fisher, and Diamond that really turned them into something special, and apparently Gordon was too much of a showman for the Mael’s tastes. They went on without him and released the maginificent Propaganda in the same year, which was also a success (including “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” and “Something For the Girl With Everything”, still two of the band’s best singles). Fisher would leave for 1975’s Indiscreet, which was all over the map anyway, and by the time of 1976’s Big Beat the group was Russell and Ron plus session musicians, and they really sounded like it too. Neither that or the subsequent Introducing Sparks (quite a clever title for a band’s 7th album, that) charted, nor did they receive very good reviews. That said, all these albums are worth a listen; Ron’s songwriting muse had not exactly left him, and there are good songs on all of them.
Alas, that’s just the nature of Sparks. There’s no telling what could’ve been had the Kimono band stuck together, but you could imagine that No. 1 in Heaven, their excellent collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, probably wouldn’t have happened if they had. For better or worse, that’s Sparks, a couple of old dogs constantly in search of new tricks, and somehow they seem to keep finding them. When it looked like the songwriting well had finally dried up, they wrote “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way'”, their best single in about 15 years. When Balls showed them to be more comfortable as followers rather than leaders, they released Li’l Beethoven, a nearly unclassifiable album full of orchestral arrangements, densely layered vocals, and almost no drums whatsoever, a hell of a leap for a band known for dance music. Lately they’ve written a musical (The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman) and released Two Hands, One Mouth, their first time playing as just a duo, and their first official live album, 42 years after the first studio one.
Note: 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.