Thursday, November 5, 2009

Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins (1994)

After a six year hiatus, the Maels had a bright idea: "hey, what about if, instead of doing more uninspired water-treading, we released our best album since No. 1 in Heaven? It's just crazy enough to work!"

And so it is. So. It. Is.

They aren't exactly innovating here, but that's okay. The nineties technoish sound works quite well for the songs here. It never feels forced, or as if they're playing catch-up. There are a few mediocre songs, notably "Tsui Hark" (featuring the director of that name)--it may be the least sonically interesting thing they've ever done. "Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil" is likewise kind of plodding.

But Christ Jesus, "(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing" will knock your socks off, and then you'll have to waste a lot of time looking for them. It features what can only be called rapping, Mael-style, and then it explodes into the most enormous, swooningly romantic chorus you can possibly imagine. It's a real stunner, and would easily find a place in any list of top-ten Sparks songs I might compose.

Almost as good is "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way?'" a bit of sweeping melancholia from the (semi-autobiographical, no doubt) perspective of a singer wondering when or if he's ever going to find that longed-for critical acceptance. It even references Sid Vicious's infamous cover of the song! Really smart, and really good. These guys were rejuvenated and then some by their time off.

I would also mention "Let's Go Surfing," a magnificently bleak number that takes place in a prison. It surely ranks as one of the darkest songs putatively about surfing that I have ever heard (the other one is Johnny Dowd's "Big Wave," obviously (there's also "Surfer Girl," but I'm pretty sure that wasn't actually MEANT to sound like a dirge)). In fact, while still possessing that distinctive Sparks feel, including a song entitled "I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car," this is a surprisingly dark album. It's also a significant artistic achievement, and I recommend it highly.

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