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Sparks - Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins CD (album) cover




Crossover Prog

3.29 | 31 ratings

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3 stars It took a break of six years (during which the brothers were trying to make a Japanese comic strip into a movie) to make it happen, but the brothers finally made another good album. There are some reasons to poo-poo it, of course; the sound makes extensive use of contemporary techno sounds and beats, and on my first few listens I had trouble getting beyond the notion of the duo (it's pointless to call them a 'band' at this point; the brothers handled all of the music and the bulk of the production) as a couple of old men trying to grab onto a music scene that had passed them by (kinda like with David Bowie and Earthling a few years later). This isn't, by and large, my kind of music, and I almost certainly would never find my way to an album like this if it wasn't made by a group with whom I was already familiar. And yet, for whatever issues I might have with the underpinning production choices, I can't help but enjoy a good chunk of this album. It's not on the same level as Heaven (the easy comparison point for this album), but it's about as good as In Outer Space (a less obvious but equally valid comparison point).

It definitely helps that the album's first "real" song (I'm disregarding the silly jokes "Gratuitous Sax" and "Senseless Violins" which open and close the album, even if they're a delight and I wouldn't want to hear the album without them) is the group's best since the 70s. "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'?" is a MONSTER of a great pop anthem, with lyrics about the regret that comes from always doing things the way other people expect of you, great keyboard parts on top of the generic techno beat, and a set of glorious melodies. I actually heard this song long after I heard most great Sparks songs, largely because its reputation was so impeccable that I wanted to reserve one last potential treat from the band for as long as I reasonably could, and it's every bit as great as I'd have hoped at the time. If you like Sparks and haven't heard this song yet, please please please find it and listen to it.

It's very easy, after the great opening track, to frame this album as one great track plus a bunch of techno blah, but that's not really fair. What strikes me most about this album is that, once I get beyond the techno aspects, I feel like I can sense the band's actual personality for the first time in a while. The lyrics tend to be genuinely clever and goofy, there's a lot of fun had with layering Russell's vocals, there are some ridiculous (in a good way) faux-operatic moments, there's some variety in the keyboard sounds, and there are clever and unconventional twists in the chord sequences. In other words, I feel like I'm actually listening to a Sparks album. "I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car" (a lot of monologue interspersed with singing the title in the most overly dramatic way imaginable) and "Tsui Hark" (a drone with sporadic speaking by film director Tsui Hark) largely pass me by (though I kinda like some of the angrier beats in the former), but the rest is delightful. It doesn't get quite the same praise as "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'?" does, and the idea of Russell Mael rapping is a little unsettling, but the chorus of "(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing" is glorious, and it helps me like the song almost as much as the more famous track that comes before it. I'm also quite the fan of "Now That I Own the BBC" (a lyrical throwback to the absurdity of "I Bought the Mississippi River" with a very playful tune) and "Let's Go Surfing" (with some terrible keyboard sounds playing beautiful keyboard parts while Russell sings lyrics that end up sounding majestic in context).

The other tracks are good enough. "Frankly, Scarlett, I Don't Give a Damn" and "Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil" are each mournful drones, the former featuring a nagging keyboard line echoed by Russell's "doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo" and the latter featuring an atmospheric-as-hell combination of Russell's normal voice and falsetto in the "chorus." Finally, "The Ghost of Liberace" is dinky silliness, but it's dinky silliness in a way that takes me back to the band's peak era, especially in the goofy chorus line of "The ghost of Liberace still has that mystique/If he were alive he'd now be at his peak" or in the "Sometimes he blinds the drivers with his shiny suits/They see that smile and they laugh at him, he don't shoot" couplet.

It would have been very easy for the band to just give up after their flameout in the 80s, but I'm glad they had the desire and material for a comeback. If you're not the kind who minds the kind of production approach they took, you might even love this album, but all Sparks fans should definitely hear it.

tarkus1980 | 3/5 |


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