October 26 2012
I must confess to being somewhat remiss in my research. When I arrived at the Brab this evening, I was under the impression that I was about to witness a typical Sparks show, if there ever was such a thing in the career of the still-unclassifiable Californian duo. In other word full band, Tammy Glover on drums, various ex-Redd Kross/Faith No More alumni on guitars and basses, and a litany of sounds ranging from Wagnerian opera-rock to stomping '72 glitter. But, by the horns of all unholy, was I wrong!! The Sparks Brothers you see (comprising the ebullient, theatrical and ever-engaging Russell Mael and the shy, reserved, sinister and yet extremely personable Ron Mael, the latter the principal songwriter and conceptualist behind half their finest work) have always been, regardless of line-up or geographical location, intrinsically that - a duo, and that's precisely what we get tonight.
Like the title says, even if, again, I erroneously believed it to also be that of a new studio album to be played in full, "Two Hands, One Mouth" (although if I were to be pedantic, I could point out that Russell also owns a pair of hands with which to grip the microphone, and Ron indeed speaks to the audience with his own mouth, albeit when prompted, on at least two occasions) - and, lo and verily, that's very much the structure of tonight's show, featuring no other musicians but the Maels themselves, adapting and re-interpreting their songs in stripped-down fashion. Technically, this is the closest, if you will, that they'll ever get to "unplugged", given that their sound is reliant largely on electronic keyboards, with even the acoustic piano sounds emanating from Ron's by-now-legendary "Ronald" synthesiser. It's a beautiful idea, allowing for once the songs to speak for themselves uncluttered by either rock guitars or dance beats, and also works very well financially for the brothers, I should imagine, as their attempts to get their Broadway musical The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman off the ground have so far met with difficulty.
And, if truth be known, watching it tonight feels like being allowed entry to some elite club: OK, maybe not as elite as it would have been had I been able to see its premiere at Bush Hall earlier in the year, but the Barbie's palatial surroundings (and comfortable seating) more than make up for that. Even the somewhat questionable sonics, with the soundman sometimes seemingly doing his best to accentuate the already-high frequencies present in the brothers' music to the point where you find yourself rubbing your teeth and nose in slight discomfort, can't detract from the very special nature of the event. Part of the joy stems from hearing songs you never thought you'd hear live again, such as 'Under The Table With Her' and 'At Home At Work At Play', which really shouldn't work in this context but somehow does. Conversely 'Hospitality On Parade', 'Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth' and the evergreen 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us' (the latter one of the few 'overplayed' songs in rock history I never tire of) are all old favourites we're more than used to seeing and hearing, but in this context they seem to acquire an added dimension of freshness and power.
Indeed, someone once said the test of a great song is if it sounds good played over an acoustic guitar - substitute the word "guitar" for "one keyboard and an arsenal of sounds", and Sparks prove that even their deliberately obtuse, wilfully outre compositions also pass this test. Well, most of them anyway: despite its operatic grand designs, the aforementioned Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman, their most recent studio album to date, remains also their weakest and their only sign of an Achilles heel. And, in accord, the selection of three conjoined offerings from it aired tonight proved to be the least inspired segment of the performance. But hopefully they will soon move on once more to greater things without allowing it to hinder and cloud their progression. By comparison, it's fascinating to witness how the once-new, radically-challenging songs from Li'l Beethoven, an album still less than ten years old, and its sequel Hello Young Lovers, have now become regarded as old favourites, and are greeted with as much applause as the vintage material: 'Rhythm Thief', 'Dick Around' and 'Suburban Homeboys' prompt mass singalongs and handclaps from the entranced crowd, and even 'My Baby's Taking Me Home' - a brave choice considering its repetitive lyrical motif hitherto concealed onstage before by advanced microphone-based theatrics - manages to elicit nothing but enraptured applause, possibly because of the setting rather than in spite of it. Also, where else but in such a show could they get away with a ridiculous piece of fluff such as the extremely rare B-side 'The Marriage Of Russell Mael And Jacqueline Kennedy'?
Sparks music has never been, with the exception of maybe less than ten songs (none played tonight) openly emotional, preferring instead to make its point with wry lyrical asides, witty metaphors (which "chicks dig" apparently, if you believe the lyric of another of tonight's many fine selections) and comic allusion to the sometimes flagrantly absurd, but 'When Do I Get To Sing My Way', which sets its candid treatment of the subjects of marginalisation, exclusion and lack of recognition to one of he most bittersweet melodies in the Mael canon, comes pretty damn close, and causes a genuine lump in the throat. Proving, to anyone who still doubts after 40 years, that there is depth underneath all the spectacle. For this same reason, the sight of an animated Ron during 'No 1 Song In Heaven' and 'Beat The Clock', during which Russ takes over the keys with nary a flicker as his brother simultaneously bogles and stripteases, is not only amusing but touching: the years of polite reservation have recently given way to a new-found quest for release, and when the moustachioed 67-year old takes the mike and announces his thanks, not to mention slight mystification, that the British public should still take time to watch them after all these decades, it looks as if he may have finally found it.
Closing the set sadly not with the acoustic version of 'Change' that so perfectly ended the 2006 tour, but instead with the specially written (and just as beautiful) 'Two Hands One Mouth' itself, the brothers Mael leave the stage to yet again retreat into their intensely private, secret world of which very little is known, presumably to plot the next scheme of their masterplan for world domination by subtle insinuation. Leaving them part of a select group of artists, including also Scott Walker and the Residents, who continue to confound just by existing. Like most of us who've been attending this church regularly since we converted, we still don't quite know what its intent or purpose is - but we still want in.
Darius Drewe Shimon