The enduring, eternally resurrecting art that spills from (the one, the only) Sparks, L.A.’s kings of the cleverest of pop, is something to behold: The sibling pair has, for 30-odd years, defined and continually redefined its audacious brand of ultradramatic (in a funny sort of way), progressive and wickedly wordy pop music. It has tickled our brains, dictated fist pumps and made us go “woooo.”
In fact, Sparks have been on a roll over the past half-decade, offering a spate of critical and semicommercial successes that started to flow copiously with the release of the extraordinary, revolutionary Lil’ Beethoven in 2004. A curiously powerful and radical restructuring of rock into a drum-free world of elaborately layered vocals and keyboards in rhythmic, almost looplike modes, the record spun out harmonized — and hilarious — tales of angry young bands and ugly guys with beautiful girls. Lil’ Beethoven changed the very shape of the rock song, showed us how it potentially could continue to evolve while continuing to, well, rock.
The 2006 follow-up, Hello Young Lovers, further explores this smearing of rock theatricality with facetiously operatic drama. Still relatively drum-lite, Lovers emphasizes elaborate arrangements and thematically linked parts where Russell’s repetitive vocal laments are used as the primary rhythmic elements, amid Ron’s lush orchestral-string synths floated above.
Sparks’ new one is called Exotic Creatures of the Deep, and takes the process of rock even further, deconstructing 13 new songs of enormous grace, style, wit and élan (such as “Lighten Up, Morrissey”).
Says Ron over coffee at a café on Melrose, “We thought we were making a new start with Lil’ Beethoven, and we kind of didn’t know how far we could go with that general direction. But we still feel that we haven’t run out of ideas in that general way. It’s kind of thinking of songs in a different way than we have. We always wrote songs, and even though they were a little bit eccentric, they were still songs. With Lil’ Beethoven, we started working in a more musical way, and hoping we could concentrate them into something that had some kind of form that could be seen as a song.”
In my notes on the new album are scribbled the words form and structure, because it is quite amazing what Sparks have been achieving in these new pieces: They’re pop songs, but they’re not — or at least they’re much, much more. They’re breaking boundaries regarding the protraction and mutation of songs. How far can they take it before we concede that they’re actually writing symphonies? These are radical statements — but that doesn’t seem to worry them.
“Because we work in such isolation,” says Ron, “we never know what the reaction is gonna be to what we’re doing; and the critical reaction to Lil’ Beethoven was so strong, and the reaction to our shows was so strong, it was stirring to us and pushed us to take it further than we had before.”
Even as the relentlessly good-humored creators of such supremely intelligent quirky-pop — from the rocking over-the-top theatrics of albums such as Kimono My House (featuring “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us”) and Propaganda in the early ’70s to their KROQ-friendly ’80s sets like Whomp That Sucker and Angst In My Pants — Sparks made with Lil’ Beethoven a substantial leap that heralded the beginning of a new phase.
“We felt it, too,” says Russell. “It was a conscious attempt to shake it up within our own sphere. You know, when you have that many albums [21, but who’s counting?], the easiest route is just to keep more of the same thing going, ’cause you have enough people that just like what you’re doing.
“But at that point — I guess it was 18 albums that we had done — you just say, What’s the point? But if you just push yourself, you’re capable of doing bigger, more expansive, more intricate things. We had written at that point almost an album’s worth of songs that would have been the Lil’ Beethoven album, but we just thought, God, boring.”
That’d be boring for us listeners, too. And as Russell points out: “What the heck did Sparks have to lose, anyway? It’s not like it’s Mariah Carey, where they’re going to let down the entire EMI organization, or whoever she works for.”
“Our thing,” Russell continues, “has always been the whole spirit of pop music: rebellion, and sort of provocation — but it can be in nonsloganeering ways, not provocative in an ‘off the establishment’ kind of way, but just musically, and doing things that people have gotta go, ‘Whoa, what is that?’”
And if it’s loads of heavy drums and bass and guitars you think you need to truly rock yourself into bliss, listen to the new album’s method of discarding standard instrumentation and shape without losing an ounce of in-yo-face rock belligerence.
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Says Russell, “We try to figure out ways to replace those things so we can do that with stacked up voices, aggressive strings. There’s other ways it can still have the spirit of rock music at its aggressive best, but also be done in another way.”
Indeed, as Ron keenly observes, “When we first started out, we were kind of forcing drums and guitars to play songs that weren’t natural for drums and guitars; but I think as time went on, we got brainwashed in a way to 4/4 structures. So this was a way to free ourselves up in the same way we kinda felt free at the very beginning, where it isn’t sort of a natural fit for a band to be doing what we’re doing. And that’s the way we like it, where there is a forced feeing to the arrangement.”
And Sparks do all this without much regard to fans’ expectations. Russell: “That’s one thing that we almost try to not play to, the ‘What would the Sparks audience want?’ When you do that, you get into a trap of saying, ‘Well, this is what’s expected, even within Sparks’ world.’ Hopefully, Sparks’ audience is gonna go with us where we go because that’s the nature of what we do. Taking risks and doing things in unexpected ways has always been there with Sparks.”
Sparks perform Exotic Creatures of the Deep and Kimono My House in their entirety at UCLA Royce Hall on Saturday, February 14.