Saturday, June 7, 2008

Shaken, Not Stirred...and Pass the Jelly Bellies: Sparks' Exotic Creatures From the Deep

The outrageous and witty Mael brothers of Sparks are back and to celebrate the release of their latest album, Exotic Creatures From the Deep, they decided to create a mad twenty-one night run of London shows in which each gig showcases an album from their back catalogue. The run kicked off on May 16 with Halfnelson and will run until the premiere of Exotic Creatures From the Deep at Shepherd's Bush Empire on June 13. The album itself will release this Tuesday. I really enjoy Sparks, and I've come to realize even more keenly with this album how they never fit into any one genre or period, so their sound constantly appears contemporary and unique. While they were originally included in the glam scene early in their career, their blend of genres like vaudeville, classical, jazz, pop, electro, and rock, combined with Russell's fey, semi-operatic vocals and characteristic staccato delivery, put them in a strange class of their own. In some ways, they had similarities to their contemporaries Queen, but with a wittier, artier slant. Perhaps Sparks altered their sound a bit with each development in music technology (ie: their '80's albums utilize a lot more synthesizer and drum machines), but they still make the same zany, tongue-in-cheek theatrics. I love their mixture of sophistication and absurdity. They're like a martini garnished with jelly beans. And they continue with this album, which is a natural progression from their last album Hello Young Lovers.

Exotic Creatures of the Deep is loosely held together by an intro which then appears as a reprise halfway through the album, only to reappear again at the very end of the last song of the album, Likeable. The nearly accapella refrain of "I don't care if you love me, just so you like me" is a memorable hook and makes much more sense when it finds itself in the final song about a narrator whose best feature is his intangible likeability. The second track of the album, Good Morning, features newer musical techniques by dipping into the electro scene for fuzzed out beats; however, this story of a man who wakes up without any recollection of the night before, has the signature Sparks schizophrenia with soft, symphonic interludes and Russell at his most falsetto. This flirtation with new sounds persists in I Can't Believe That You Would Fall For All the Crap in This Song, which could have been an electro-burlesque tune by either Kylie Minogue or Goldfrapp, and features lyrics that satirize the genre of love/lust songs. One of my favourtie songs on this album is the completely mad Let the Monkey Drive. Sparks' staccato, clipped style works magnificently in this tune about allowing a monkey to take the wheel on a Californian highway, so that the narrator and his companion can do as they like in the backseat. The melody is hugely catchy and romps along so fluidly you can almost miss the fact that apparently the car is actually the monkey's in the firstplace.

Their wit is in full working order with songs like Strange Animal, which comments on the process of making a song in a postmodern fashion, and the enormously catchy (She Got Me) Pregnant, which places lyrics about a woman getting a man pregnant over dark cabaret worthy of Danny Elfman. The intelligent craziness keeps going with This Is the Renaissance, a song that strings together facts about the Renaissance period to another dark cabaret backdrop, praising the rebirth of art and science, and insisting that Gutenberg is printing a centrefold, "so let it all hang out." Any band who adds "contra butto" to their lyrics in passing is bound to make me happy. And to prove their fabulous consciousness of pop culture and their currency (see Perfume from their last album for an example of their exhaustive pop culture observances), they created a song entitled Photoshop, which takes melodrama to new heights in the age of technology as Russell belts out "Photoshop me out of your life." Another one of my favourite tracks on this record is Lighten Up, Morrissey, which tells the frustrated story of a man who cannot get a woman to notice him because she idolizes Morrissey so much. She criticizes the narrator's intellect, masculinity and meat-eating ways to the beat of a stomping rock song. Sparks revealed in an interview with Jonathan Ross that they first ran the song by Morrissey and he found it very amusing and gave his approval.

Overall, Exotic Creatures of the Deep maintains the cinematic flavour and ambition of Sparks' music that began with Halfnelson, and which has held my attention through twenty-one albums. If anything, they've just expanded into even bigger and bolder soundscapes and storylines, though maybe not quite as ambitious as 2006's Lil Beethoven. In the aforementioned Jonathan Ross interview, the Mael brothers expressed their desire to write a film soundtrack; with their signature ability to shift styles and genres within songs in order to tell their stories, I would love to hear their soundtrack score. Maybe they need to attempt the next James Bond soundtrack. Who's more sophisticated and absurd than 007?

Let the Monkey Drive - Sparks

This is the Renaissance - Sparks

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