Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Avant Pop: Sparks, "Hippopotamus"

Sparks, Hippopotamus (BMG, 2017)

Having moved to Los Angeles just more than a decade ago, I’ve been enjoying the slight Sparks renaissance I’ve been able to witness in the last handful of years—and thankful that I live somewhere where Ron and Russell Mael would be recognized, respected, and perhaps even celebrated. (And where I’d even learn about them.) Now both in their 70s, I’m curious what the brothers make of the new, or perhaps renewed attention. Because they’ve never stopped making records. Except for a brief time living in London, they’ve been here without fail; they grew up in Pacific Palisades and now live in the Coldwater Canyon area. And they’ve been doing what they do the entire time.

Which is what, exactly? (Or, as a song title might put it, “What the Hell Is It This Time?”) Over the course of the last 50 years, Sparks has released 25 studio albums, averaging one every couple of years. So why had I never heard of them before moving to Los Angeles? Why haven’t I been listening to them for my entire life? Because I would have. I really would have. Now I have so many records to catch up with; I’ve been in worse spots. Even though Sparks had a brief flirtation with popularity in 1983 with the song “Cool Places,” a collaboration with the Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin that yielded a music video and got some attention on MTV, the first album to hit my radar was this one, 2017’s Hippopotamus.

To be fair, Hippopotamus was Sparks’ first major label release in about two decades. They’d self-released four albums on their own Lil’ Beethoven Records and released two other independent label recordings in that time. Regardless, between Hippopotamus and the subsequent 2021 documentary film, The Sparks Brothers, the Mael brothers are hopefully reaping some benefits after their five decades of persistent and peripatetic songwriting.

If you’ve never heard or sought out Sparks before, they’re a little hard to describe. One might consider them avant pop; they possess a semblance of the structure and content of pop music—but operate somewhere just adjacent to pop music. Things seem slightly off. Imagine a more accessible Residents, perhaps balancing the songwriting tendencies of Peter Gabriel and Laurie Anderson. Or Matt Johnson’s The The, only slightly more optimistic and with the lyrical sensibilities of Robyn Hitchcock. Maybe if David Byrne had only listened to more Art of Noise, Yello, and Gong records. Or Frank Zappa fell in love with dance music. Sparks specializes in art or drama rock, using the pop band as artistic canvas, and the result is definitely art house fare, occasionally reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s without seeming dated or passe.

With Ron Mael on keyboards and Russell Mael on vocals, the brothers are joined by Dean Menta on guitar and bass, and Steve Nistor on drums. Lyrically, songs address forgetfulness, vanilla sex, aging, a higher power, inattentiveness, seriousness, death, and other topics. My favorite tracks include “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me),” “Giddy Giddy,” “Bummer,” “I Wish You Were Fun,” and “The Amazing Mr. Repeat.” A couple of the songs, “Scandinavian Design” and the title track, are humorous enough that they could be covered by They Might Be Giants or “Weird Al” Yankovic without too much of a stretch of the imagination.

At 15 songs, the album feels just slightly too long to me, but then I get a second wind and am sad when the final song, the delightfully sadly dramatic “Life with the Macbeths,” comes around. The only thing one can do when the record ends is begin it again. I have no broader context for this record yet—I’ve heard maybe one other Sparks song—but it’s an excellent listening experience. 

If I could only listen to one Sparks record, I’d be satisfied with this one.

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