Thursday, July 25, 2013

Spam Filter.

Spam always shows up in the topmost post, so this post ought to catch the runoff.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Live at the Trocadero Theatre, Philadelphia, 04/24/2013

I dreamed I saw Ron Mael last night, alive as you and me (Russell also, but that doesn't scan properly). Wait a second--that was no dream! It meant a six hour round trip, but I felt it was incumbent on me to actually see Sparks, and given their somewhat erratic touring history, especially in the states, I was not going to be picky.

 First, it must be noted: this was supposed to be an eight o'clock show, and it started at nine. This certainly isn't the first time I've been to a show that took forever to get going, but never this egregiously in such an allegedly high-class venue. Whoever was responsible here, it was very unprofessional. At the very least, someone from the theater should've come on stage at some point to provide an explanation/revised start time. Just saying. Wednesday night. People have places to be. C'mon.

Still, when it started, it started.  Ron comes on stage first in his standard business attire, sits down at the keyboard (with "RONALD" helpfully stenciled on it), and plays a medley of brief motifs from various Sparks songs.  Finally, Russell dashes out on stage, looking pixie-ish in a sports jacket, trousers that cut off just below the knee (there must be a word for that, but fashion-plate I am not), and striped socks pulled all the way up.  He immediately begins belting out "The Rhythm Thief," dashing around and gesticulating dramatically all the while, and in spite of the long-ass wait, it's impossible not to grin widely.  You might not think that a song from Li'l Beethoven would work in a non-orchestral setting, but the revised context was quite good.  Onward from there through an array of songs both expected ("This Town," "Mother Earth") and less so ("The Marriage of Russell Mael and Jacqueline Kennedy?"  Really?).  Russell had consistently the kind of energy you'd hope for, and it was a lot of fun, for the most part--though an extremely desultory-sounding "Dick Around," hugely truncated, was a disappointment (seriously, if you don't want to play it, don't; it's not like there aren't plenty of other great songs that could take its place--but if you're gonna, don't half-ass it).  They ended, predictably, with "Two Hands, One Mouth," a new song for the tour built around a smutty double entendre--it's pretty great, and it really makes me look forward to a new studio album.

So I had fun; there's no question of that.  But here's the thing: at less than an hour and a half, this was a pretty damned meager show.  I cannot help but compare it to the Leonard Cohen concert I saw this past December, which went a full three and a quarter hours.  Now, that's above and beyond the call of duty, of course, but especially when you consider the massive swaths of great material that Ron'n'Russell could've played…you can't help but be a bit disappointed.

You may wonder why I haven't written about the live album Two Hands One Mouth yet.  Well, I haven't heard it yet, but I will when I do.  That brings me to another complaint, however: the track listing of that album is almost identical to the set list of last night's show.  The only differences (apart from a few songs being in a different order) is that the album includes "Good Morning" and "Hospitality on Parade," whereas the show featured "Angst in My Pants."  Apart from that, the same.  I mean really now.  How 'bout changing it up a little, eh?  We can already buy the album; we don't need to just hear it reiterated!  And given that thing they did last year where they played through their entire discography over the course of twenty-some nights, they certainly can't have just sort of forgotten what they've got.  I'm not gonna lie: it feels a little lazy.

Would I go to see them again?  Yes.  Would I do it if it meant driving another six hours?  Not without some indication that the show was going to be a bit more substantial than this.  I don't want to create the impression that I didn't enjoy it, because I did, but I feel like they could very easily have put on a show that I enjoyed a lot more.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

"Where Would We Be without Books?"/"I Am a Bookworm" (2010)

Ron and Russell were commissioned to do new opening and closing themes for the NPR program Bookworm. In the greater scheme of things, these are perhaps not the most super-significant things ever; what with being theme songs and all, they're only about thirty seconds each, and there's only so much you can do in that time frame.

Fact remains, though, they made me grin like an idiot throughout. This may partially be a Pavlovian reaction that non-Sparks-fans (what's wrong with you?!?) won't experience, but I am fulfilled. "Where Would We Be?" features more substantial lyrics (once again, considering the medium), but "I Am a Bookworm" is probably the favorite, featuring some great harmonies and Russell's classic falsetto.

You can hear them right this instant by downloading the relevant podcast (this is a somewhat time-sensitive statement). The second song starts at 5:47; I kind of wish they'd be released as individual tracks, though.

(Actually, come to think of it, it's really NOT time-dependent, since you can presumably download any ol' post-September-second episode to hear the songs. Duh. In that case you won't get to hear a somewhat fawning interview with Ron and Russell, however.)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman (2009)

Sparks are popular in Sweden, it seems. Like duck comics. Those Scandinavians really have their heads on straight. So as a result of this popularity, the band was commissioned by Swedish National Radio to create a radio musical. A first-ever for R'n'R! Or for just about *anyone* in this day and age. It had to be somehow Sweden-related. So, they hit on Ingmar Bergman.

The story: Ingmar goes on a whim to see a bad American action film and finds himself in Hollywood upon leaving the theater. What follows is a surreal, Kafkaesque nightmare as a Hollywood studio tries to convince him to work for THEM! Then, at the end, he's saved by Greta Garbo, who gets him back to Sweden. True story.

Now look, this is obviously a departure for the band--first musical, first album with a narrative, first one to incorporate a multitude of voices--so obviously, it's going to take some getting used to for the average fan (well, for me). The reason this feature went up so late is that I felt it was incumbent on me to listen to it enough to have a somewhat thought-out opinion.

And the opinion I've come to: this is pretty darned cool. Honestly, the general concept doesn't exactly blow me away; it does the job, and it makes sense for a somewhat marginalized band like Sparks to take on this art-vs-commerce theme, but the idea doesn't set me on fire--I feel like it's just adequate. The execution is where it shines, however, and isn't that what it's all about? Somewhat irritatingly, the entire thing is presented as one bigass track, even though it's broken into segments in the booklet. Sure, it's designed to be listened to as a whole rather than in pieces, but it just feels a bit clunky, and I feel like it makes it somewhat more difficult to analyze. It's not too much of an issue, however.

The songs aren't uniformly great, but there's plenty worth hearing here. The one that most people (including me--I'm SUCH a sheep) will immediately identify as the album's highlight is "The Studio Commissary," probably because it sounds most traditionally Sparksish. Russell, as the studio chief, takes Bergman to the commissary and, like Satan showing Jesus the kingdoms of the world, points out all the famous expatriate directors eating there, all to the tune form of a frantic, vaguely sinister polka.

Also notable: Ron sings! A Sparks first! And he does so credibly well, as "limo driver" and particularly as "Hollywood tour guide" (the funniest part of the album). The latter segues into the tense "Autograph Hounds," with its sense of claustrophobia and impending doom. The final escape sequence is also suitably climactic. Overall, I would say that the level of tension rises in quite an efficient/effective way, though honestly, the Garbo sequence at the end doesn't do much for me.

Still, why complain? It's fascinating, adventurous new terrain, and it's extremely heartening to see that the Maels aren't getting complacent in their late middle age. I eagerly await whatever comes next.

Exotic Creatures of the Deep (2008)

Here's Exotic Creatures of the Deep. Musically, it's pretty much a direct follow-up to Hello Young Lovers. Some of the song titles sound a bit…strained in their attempted wackiness ("I Can't Believe that You Would Fall for All the Crap in This Song," "Lighten Up, Morrissey," "Photoshop Me Out of Your Life"), leading one to expect the worst, but one would be happily incorrect. It's a bit less awesome, but it's still pretty awesome. For instance, "Let the Monkey Drive," with its naggingly insistent piano accompaniment, is extremely awesome. The allmusic review claims it's an attack on our former president, but this seems like a massive stretch to me. Just because it has a monkey in it isn't really proof of anything, dood.

"I've Never Been High" recalls "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way?'" In a good way. The post-one-night-stand single "Good Morning" is pretty classy with some great lyrics. ". . . I fix you breakfast/I hope it's just your laugh that is infectious," and poses the question: "Does das vedonya really mean good morning?" (sadly, no). I also have to point out the song "Brenda Is Always in the Way," which is only on the Japanese edition, which sucks, because it's totally great and you need to hear it. "As constructive criticism, Brenda, may I say, although you're A-okay, you're always in the way." Look on the internet! That's what I did.

Okay, there are a few songs that do, indeed, sound a bit strained in their wackiness. "(She Got Me) Pregnant" is nice enough, with some decent lyrics ("You know how these girls can be/They treat you all so casually/They wine you and they dine you and expect a little la-dee-dee"), but as noted: strained. A bit. Same with "Lighten Up, Morrissey," where the girlfriend is unhappy with Russell's non-Morissey-like ways (although one can't but appreciate "she won't disport with me"--that's just a great and underused word for a pop song). This is a good record to listen to, however. It is, for the most part, very…good.

Hello Young Lovers (2006)

"HOLY FUCKING SHIT," is about all you can say here--the notion that a band this venerable could experience such a monumental return to form seems laughable; a self-serving fantasy--but the proof is in the FUCKING AWESOME pudding, as they say. Do they say that? They should. There is one song here that is less than sensational, and "The Very Next Fight" is still good, and quite interesting lyrically; it's just…a shade weaker than everything else. Everything else is goddamn GREAT, starting with the opening single "Dick Around;" everyone who hears it for the first time EVER will compare it to "Bohemian Rhapsody;" fair enough, but the resemblance, when you get down to it, is mostly superficial--a song with a bunch of different parts. Dude. How the HELL does a band that's been around so long sound so totally self-assured? Chronicling the aftermath of a breakup with a torrential outpouring of words and music, in the most offbeat, awesome way possible. You gotta hear it.

That's the most immediately memorable track, but the whole thing is awesome. I love the hell out of the call-and-response on "Metaphor" ("Are you chicks up for a metaphor?" "Yes, we're up for a metaphor!" "Don't don't don't don't mix them!" "We wouldn't dream of mixing them"--I think Thomas Friedman needs to hear this song). I love the absolute emotional brutality on display in "Waterproof" ("I see you crying/But I'm not buying/Your Meryl Streep mimickry"). I love--obviously--the jaundiced, Sparksified take on patriotism in "(Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country?" I love the way "Rock, Rock, Rock" rocks, rocks, rocks. I love the increasingly panicked crescendo of "There's No Such Thing as Aliens." I love the way the epic closer "As I Sit Down to Play the Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral" reminds me of The Recognitions for absolutely no reason other than the fact that that novel does indeed end in a French cathedral. And since I've listed most of the songs and I realize if I leave a few out it will seem as though I'm doing it for a reason, I should clarify that I also love the hypnotic "Perfume" (from which I learned that there's an actual perfume called "Opium"--that must lead to some wacky sitcom-type mix-ups) and the intoxicatingly strange "Here Kitty."

Basically, the whole album is fucking great. I use the word "fucking" because I am linguistically impoverished, perhaps. But it just seems like it has to be done, in this case. Fucking! Great! End! Of! Fucking! Story! Fucking!

Lil' Beethoven (2002)

Not exactly classical, but it provides a vaguely classical patina to traditional Sparksiana--no traditional pop songs, use of classical rather than rock instruments. You couldn't call it "classical" in any deep sense, but it's definitely different, and sees the Maels really innovating for the first time in a long time. I'm not as taken with it as a lot people are, but it's nice to see them pushing boundaries again.

There's a lot of repetition here, lyrically, and it only sort of works. "My Baby's Taking Me Home" consists of nothing but the title phrase repeated eighteen thousand times (with a brief spoken-word interlude in the middle). It's hard to imagine it being anyone's favorite. "Your Call Is Very Important to Us. Please Hold." works better than you'd think, considering that it mostly consists of "First she said: 'your call is very important to us.' And then she said: 'please hold, please hold.'" "The Rhythm Thief" is so good that you don't even notice that it's somewhat lyrically limited. It's a thrilling song with a great conceit: "I am the Rhythm Thief. Say goodbye to the beat." The chorus of "Oh, no! Where did the groove go?" is pretty darned funny, but keep in mind that "you'll never get it back. You'll never get it back. The Rhythm Thief has got it and you'll never get it back."

Actually, writing this, I'm sort of convincing myself that maybe I like it better than I had realized. "Ride 'em Cowboy" is an undeniable classic, super-melodramatic with these cool, minimalistic couplets about falling from grace ("From 'you're for me'/To '├ža suffit'/From bon vivant/To sycophant/From open door/To merde alors). The "ride em cowboy ride em (get back on again)" refrain is also excellent. This one's a real winner.

Also notable: "Ugly Guys with Beautiful Girls," a mostly-spoken-word thing that doesn't seem like much of a song, but which is pretty great anyway, with the over-the-top intellectual detachment of its lyrics about the title phenomenon. Given that it was written by guys in their fifties, "Suburban Homeboy" is a surprisingly incisive/funny song about privileged white kids trying to act like 50 Cent ("I am a suburban homeboy with a suburban ho right by my side/I am a suburban homeboy and I say 'yo, dawg' to my pool cleaning guy").

Anyway, I recommend this in a general way. Nice to see that they've woken up.