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4 stars After a pretty average decade of the '80s where Sparks continued their on/off fling with dance music, to various levels of success, the band decided to take a break and to do a bunch of completely offbeat projects (consult Wikipedia for more details).

Fortunately Mael brothers came to their senses and returned to music after a 6 years hiatus with another landmarks of an album Gratuitous Sax And Senseless Violins! I guess that it's safe to say that a break from music really got their creativity going and even though many people might dismiss this album for being merely a record of its time, with inspiration clearly borrowed from popular synthpop acts like Pet Shop Boys and Erasure, this is easily one of the most entertaining albums of the '90s!

Just look at this hilarious album cover and tell me that you're not even a bit intrigued of listening to it? The album is literally filled with great singles like When Do I Get To Sing "My Way, (When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing and Now That I Own The BBC. Luckily even the album tracks are equally as entertaining. Two tracks that always are high on my playlist are the completely hilarious I Thought I Told You To Wait In The Car and the surprisingly energetic album closer Let's Go Surfing.

Sparks only released one proper new release in the '90s (not counting the remix album Plagiarism) and so they really made this one count! Gratuitous Sax And Senseless Violins is an excellent album and another career highlight for Sparks. Luckily this was only the beginning of a new stroke of genius for the duo.

***** star songs: Gratuitous Sax (0:31) When Do I Get To Sing 'My Way' (4:37) I Thought I Told You To Wait In The Car (4:20) Let's Go Surfing (5:02)

**** star songs: When I Kiss You ( I Hear Charlie Parker Playing) (5:13) Frankly, Scarlett, I Don't Give A Damn (5:03) Now That I Own The BBC (4:58) Tsui Hark (4:31) The Ghost Of Liberace (4:15) Senseless Violins (0:50)

*** star songs: Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil (5:37)

Report this review (#449187)
Posted Tuesday, May 17, 2011 | Review Permalink
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.

Report this review (#1164027)
Posted Monday, April 21, 2014 | Review Permalink

Sparks is a pop-rock band with progressive tendencies, notably employing unorthodox lyrics, unusual song structures, and theatrical/operatic elements. They have a tendency to reinvent themselves periodically. This album, Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins, is from their "dance" phase, and the title highlights their penchant for wordplay.

The often happy music is synth-heavy, catchy, and buoyant. It accompanies lyrics that often are not so happy and deal with themes of jealousy, rejection, and confusion.

Tracks 1 and 11, "Gratuitous Sax" and "Senseless Violins," are throwaway songs that frame the album proper. Although they have clever bits, they are too short to warrant much notice from me. (2/5 each)

The three singles, "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'," "When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing)," and "Now That I Own the BBC" are very good, the first and third boasting nice vocals by Russell Mael. "Now That I Own the BBC" is a silly song that boasts an undercurrent of existential dread answered by "Make of it what you will". Sadly, the background vocals don't "pop" like they do in their music video. "The Ghost of Liberace" was a pleasant surprise with a serious, thoughtful lyric and winter holiday music - a plea for the disregarded. (5, 4, 5, 5, respectively)

Several songs stand out for various reasons but don't reach the same level of excellence, in my opinion: "Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil," "Let's Go Surfing," and "Tsui Hark". "Tsui Hark" is an experimental piece, essentially an instrumental with spoken word parts accompanying it.

"Frankly Scarlett, I Don't Give a Damn" and "I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car" both deal with feelings of rejection, but I don't care for them much. The latter song actually sounds quite menacing. (3/5)

Overall, the album rates about a 3.7/5. I give an extra 1/2 star for "Now That I Own the BBC," because this song buoyed me up considerably during the pandemic. Lines like "Now that I own the BBC, what am I supposed to do with this thing?" and "Make of it what you will" prompted me to do some serious thinking about how to handle my life during this crazy time. For that, I'm thankful.

I'm not a big fan of Sparks' "dance phase," but this album had enough good songs on it to warrant the purchase - notably "Now That I Own the BBC"! I opted for the BMG 3-CD release, which includes CD1 of the original album, CD2 of B-sides and remixes, and CD3 of previously unreleased demos and the Christi Haydon EP, which boasts some songs written for her by the Mael brothers. Some of the remixes are good, and I found some gold on CD3.

Three stars if you are looking for lots of progressiveness. The band progresses through time, but not all songs on an album are progressive. If you want substantial progressiveness, you'll need to look elsewhere, say Lil' Beethoven or more recent fare.

Four stars if you're me.

Five stars if you are a Sparks fan and want to know if you should buy the 3CD set. The 3CD set is essential - you get to hear Ron "sing" two songs on CD2! CD3 is a trove of lost treasures.

Report this review (#2504437)
Posted Thursday, February 11, 2021 | Review Permalink

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