Feelin' the Sparks
Sparks . Hello Young Lovers . In the Red Records
SEE THEM LIVE May 20 at the Avalon
When we last dropped in on Sparks, they’d been seen basking in the critical and popular warmth rising off the release of a most revolutionary thing called Lil’ Beethoven (2004). The general awe and thunder around that record and tour owed in part to the fact that the album came from the veteran brother act of Ron and Russell Mael, but that should’ve been no surprise, as the duo have been leaping two steps ahead of the pop pack throughout their illustrious 30-odd-year career. They had, however, never prepared us for such a curiously powerful and radical restructuring of rock as Lil’ Beethoven.
On that album, the once grandly melodic but big-beat-savvy Maels decided that they were quite sick of the same-old-same-old supremacy of pop drumming rhythms. So they eschewed percussion for much of the album, instead relying on elaborate buildups of vocal and other musical parts in rhythmic, almost looplike modes to spin out spectacularly harmonized and wickedly funny tales of angry young bands and ugly guys with beautiful girls, among other obscurely topical things.
So creating a follow-up presented major challenges. The good news is that, with another nonstandard approach to traditionally structured tunes, the Maels appear to have topped themselves with the new Hello Young Lovers.
“We realized that we’d established something with Beethoven,” says keyboardist and songwriter Ron, “and we wanted to build on that, but we didn’t want it to be like a carbon copy.”
Cluing you in to the new approach, Hello’s opening track, “Dick Around,” is a jolting but mesmerizing opus of a half dozen or so elaborately arranged and thematically linked parts where Russell’s repetitive vocal lines are used as the primary rhythmic elements and his main message, intoned unto maddening eternity, is “All I do now is dick around.” Apparently, all he does now is dick around. Throughout, lushly lovely orchestral string synths float above and between Russell’s laments, and by the time the guitar (!) and drums (!!) come in, there’s been a tremendous buildup of dramatic tension; the release is like a miniorgasm or something.
Ron: “Yeah, you know those little ones are the best kind. When the rock things came in, we didn’t want it to be sort of ironic or anything. We wanted to flip the way strings are used, so the band could be the sweetening of a track.”
Hello Young Lovers benefits from Sparks’ gift for playing inventively gorgeous and hyperdramatic music against lyrical content that doesn’t just verge on the ridiculous, it revels in it.
“The expectation for a lot of other bands is for them to get more mellow,” says Russell, “and then they get praised for dealing with ‘serious’ issues. Or, ‘Now we’re starting to write about domestic issues.’ I mean, we’ve got domestic issues, but they’re maybe treated in a different way.”
Quite so. In fact, Sparks possess an unmatched lyrical gift for zeroing in on mundanity, though the real-life relevance is often obscured by a richly comical surface. Ceaseless repetition, meanwhile, works hand in hand with ostensible themes of neurosis or oppression. Amid Hollywood heart-tugging string-synth settings, in “Rock Rock Rock,” Russell sings, “Soft passages can get you into trouble/they imply a lack of passion and commitment/And since you’ve put a gun to my head/I promise I will ROCK ROCK ROCK/like a mother, like a mother, like a mother.” “Perfume” probably deals in something love-story metaphorical, though it could be literally conveying the powerful stench of an ill-chosen scent: “The olfactory is the sense with the key to the memories of the past — well, screw the past . . . and that’s why I choose to spend my life with you.” Speaking of which, in “Metaphor,” they advise that “chicks dig metaphors — use them wisely use them well and you’ll never know the hell of loneliness.”
The timing of Sparks’ latest sound feels right. You know, with both “the return of rock” and heightened interest in the scaly progressive-rock ambitions of Sparks’ early-’70s heyday, it could just be that the Maels’ potential audience has become open to more ambitiously elaborate shapes and colors. Whatever the case may be, Sparks’ return to peak creative form has earned them new respect here and especially in Europe, Russia and Japan. Their good buddy Morrissey, a perfervid fan since the early days, got them to play at his personally curated “conceptual shows” at the 2004 Meltdown Festival in London, where they performed their 1974 Kimono My House album in its entirety for the first half and Lil’ Beethoven the second half. Ecstasy from NME, etc., ensued, as did big props from young bands such as Franz Ferdinand; the new album has been rapturously received overseas as well, with the press falling over themselves to proclaim that the sun shines out of the Mael Bros.’ bums.
How do they do it? They seem to have a knack for tuning in to what’s really happening, or ought to be.
“Maybe it’s more tuning out than tuning in,” says Ron, laughing. “Really, the vacuum that we work in isn’t something we prefer, but it’s necessary for what we do. Pop music is so much in our sensibility and our psyches that we can write honestly from that perspective without it sounding, like, becoming teenage again.”
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