Sparks – Two Hands One Mouth (2013)
First, a couple of declarations: 1) Sparks are one of my favourite bands of all time; and 2) this is a live recording from last year’s Two Hands One Mouth tour, the Manchester gig of which I went to. So, strictly speaking I have heard this before, but… it’s SPARKS!
My dad died in a car crash when I was eight, so, in person, we never got to discuss music. However, as I grew more interested in music, I raided the attic where my dad’s LPs and 45s had been stored. My dad had been into music in a big way, and I think no other single person has influenced my musical appreciation than he. Among the piles of vinyl, I found The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and so on, But I also found a few unusual albums by a band I had never heard of before; the first was green with a couple of Japanese girls in traditional wear, the next, a couple of gents tied up on the back of a speeding boat, and the third, a female scientist in white room with only a strip light for company. I was intrigued!
Those of you with an interest in Sparks will have already probably recognised these three albums as Kimono My House (1974), Propaganda (1974) and No 1. In Heaven (1979). I was perplexed, shocked, amazed; I had never heard anything like it before! I loved it! At the time, I never investigated further; I assumed that, like a lot of the bands in his collection, that they were no more. Still, I was then hooked on Sparks and on music in general.
Then, I got into Faith No More in a big way. In 1997, Faith No More recorded two tracks (This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us from Kimono My House (1974) and Something For The Girl With Everything from Propaganda (1974)) with Sparks for the album Plagiarism (1998) and I was once again hooked; two of my favourite bands collaborating? Sparks were still actually going? I had albums to catch up on! Touring Faith No More guitarist, Dean Menta, then joined Sparks, while they took on a decidedly more rock direction from Lil’ Beethoven (2002) onwards.
Fast forward to 2012 and Sparks are on tour. The tour is called Two Hands One Mouth and the premise is simple: Sparks are playing songs from their 22 albums in a stripped-back fashion, just brothers Ron Mael (keyboards; two hands) and Russell Mael (vocals; one mouth). Sparks have a knack of putting on a show, in 2008, for the release of their 21st album, Exotic Creatures From The Deep, they performed 21 gigs in a row in London, each gig playing the entirety of each of their previous albums, in chronological order, culminating in the final gig, the new album.
So, Two Hands One Mouth opens with Sparks Overture, a prelude to the gig, with snippets from each of the songs played by stony-faced Ron sat behind his “Ronald” keyboard (Roland with transposed letters). The first track proper, Hospitality On Parade (original album: Indiscreet; 1975), immediately puts Russell’s voice to challenge. In the 70s and 80s, he sang a number of songs with falsetto parts; that has to take it’s toll on a vocalist. But he sounds fantastic and expressive, as he goes from normal singing to falsetto. The original is a stripped-back number for the most part with guitars and drums coming in the second half, so this new take is not so evident here, but well recreated. Next up we have Metaphor (Hello Young Lovers; 2006), a lively song with clever lyrical content. Russell singing both the call and response parts. The original is multi-tracked, layered piece as several vocals interact, singing different parts almost as in a round, and this version is a treat, so as to hear the core song. Propaganda and At Home, At Work, At Play (both from Propaganda; 1974) follow; both are vocal acrobatic exercises, expertly performed, the first fairly true to the original, while the second, a more rocky guitar-driven number originally, is the first track to show stark difference between original and live versions; and it is still great, though I feel as if it isn’t as full as the original.
Next is tender love-song (in the way that Sparks do love songs, anyway!) Sherlock Holmes (Angst In My Pants; 1982), one of my favourite tracks, and, dare I say it, this new version is potentially better due to its more intimate style than the original; the original was a warped synth-pop number. Good Morning (Exotic Creatures Of The Deep; 2008), is another synth-laden original which is treated well and still works brilliantly in this minimalist setting.
Under The Table With Her (Indiscreet; 1975) is an unusual baroque pop track, in a way that only Sparks could get away with. The whole song is sang falsetto, but is sang strongly; Ron also manages to capture what is originally a piece for strings on the keyboards.
My Baby’s Taking Me Home (Lil’ Beethoven; 2002) is another fantastic chamber pop song as the title is repeated over and over (in the manner of a skipping record on the original); before the middle section, in which Russell weaves a vocal narrative, a device used in some Sparks tracks to great effect. The original builds in density in intensity as the track progresses and this version is a more delicate take on the track.
Singing In The Shower is a track I hadn’t heard before, originally a collaboration with French pop group, Les Rita Mitsouko, from the latter’s third album, Marc Et Robert (1988).
The Wedding of Jacqueline Kennedy to Russell Mael (Indiscreet; 1975) follows. It was a bonus track from Indiscreet, and is an a capella singing, by Ron, of marriage vows followed by the wedding march. I guess from any other band it would be unusual, but this is Sparks we are talking about.
Excerpts from The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman (2009) is another showing of the narrative style that Sparks make use of. The album is a musical written about the life of the aforementioned Swedish film director on a fictional trip to 1950s Hollywood. The album was released in both English and Swedish and these excerpts do well to reproduce the feel of the album, without giving away too much.
Dick Around (Hello Young Lovers; 2006) is another of my favourite Sparks’ tracks. It is the only track on the album that I feel doesn’t live up to the original. I think the original is just too dense with so much going on, all intricately built upon itself that, in some way, renders it like a house of cards: take out too many pieces and it collapses. Collapse is perhaps too strong a word, but you know what I mean. The form is good, I just feel that the track is not necessarily a suitable choice for this setting.
The next track, Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth (Propaganda; 1974) is back to previous quality. The stripping back of the glam pomp and some of the experimentalism from the original leads to a subtle track with a strong message seemingly antithetical to the title. While it may seem like an environmentalist mantra to care for the planet, it’s actually a message to not trust it, to keep your guard up at all times because it will destroy you. An almost sinister, macabre message but one that made all the more powerful through the interpretation here.
The next track is probably Sparks most well-known tracks, This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us (Kimono My House; 1974), and it is a glorious version, an absolute crowd-pleaser. I often wonder with bands that have a song more well-known than others (think B-52s’ Love Shack, or Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit) if they get tired of the song and the reaction it garners. If it is true of Sparks, then there is no showing of it as they belt it out.
The next two tracks are from Lil’ Beethoven (2002). The Rhythm Thief is another of the dense multi-layered modern chamber pop, which typifies much of their recent output. Like Dick Around, the complexity of Rhythm Thief could have been its undoing in this setting, but it survives in great style, sounding powerful and fresh. Suburban Homeboy was one of my favourites on the night; the crowd were right behind them and it is such a fun song, a tongue-in-cheek poke at rap music’s lyrical themes.
The next three tracks come from the more synth-led branch of Sparks career, and Ron’s keyboards are consequently more evidently used as synths here. When Do I Get To Sing “My Way”? (Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins; 1994) is a sad lament seemingly about a failed singer trying to make it, with homage to Frank Sinatra and Sid Vicious. The version here is beautiful and heartfelt, almost tear-wrenching. The next two tracks form the start of the encore; The Number One Song In Heaven (No. 1 In Heaven; 1979) is another commentary on pop music in general and expectations of fame, heavy synths form the backbone of the track and Russell’s voice reaches altitudes that must be really testing; though he passes the test with flying colours. Penultimate track, Beat The Clock (also from No. 1 In Heaven), is another of their dancier numbers and performed fantastically. Part way through the track, Russell takes over keyboard duties from Ron, who, although stone-faced the entire gig (as is his mode) gets up and dances to rapturous applause from the audience. The latter two tracks gaining rhythm from the synth, rather than any beats.
The album closes with new track Two Hands One Mouth, finally highlighting Sparks’ cheeky sense of humour, as it’s double entendre is repeated: “Two hands, one mouth, that’s all I need to satisfy you”.
It was great on the evening and again on the recording. I was also struck by Ron and Russell gentle nature, almost shyness on stage, and sincere thanks for our reception. It is almost as if they are genuinely shocked at the love shown to them by their fans.
“Oh no! Where did the groove go?” as the lyrics of The Rhythm Thief ask. Well, there may not be drums here, but the groove certainly didn’t go anywhere. “We all are someone special” says Hospitality On Parade; and special Sparks truly are! “When do I get to do it my way?” asks When Do I Get To Sing “My Way”? and Sparks have always done it their way and I hope they always will. Finally, “Two hands, one mouth, that’s all I need to satisfy you”; and satisfy me they truly do.
Spotify link: Sparks – Two Hands One Mouth (Live in Europe)