Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Review of Sparks' "Two Hands One Mouth" album

Sparks keep on re-inventing themselves by looking back and then going forward. Here they look at their classic material with new eyes and ears. At the moment they're in the middle of their “Two Hands One Mouth” tour, which also comes with a live album, recorded in Europe. Its a remarkable document/sound on many levels. For one, Sparks never take the easy route. It seems like whenever they do something they go for the hard road – and I am not sure if its a hardcore work ethic or a way for them to honor the process of discovery and seeing if they can pull it off.

Artists tries to bring something new to the table. And for the 21st Century Sparks have been focusing on a theatrical presentation of their music. Either by theater-set performances to actually doing an old-fashioned musical. Here on “Two Hands One Mouth” Sparks become an unusual version of a classic cabaret act. Maybe the bigger picture is them playing at a cave in Saint-Germain des Prés in the 40's or in the middle of Manhattan at a piano bar in the classic mid-century 1950's. But their music is more suited for Carnegie Hall (and with practice they will...) because the work itself is a superb collection of classic American songwriting. I easily put their songs up to the standards of Cole Porter, Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, and Rogers & Hart.

A live album can work as a souvenir to a show or a memory of an event. Sparks I feel sees this as 'new' work. And it is. “The Number One Song in Heaven” is totally re-worked, but the melody is intact. More hypnotic than the original recording, and also has a strong minimal bent to the arrangement. Its a fresh take on this classic song and it is also my favorite recorded version. Taking the whole album in, one is struck by the sound -which is full bodied. They're playing live (of course) but with no over-dubbing or computer magic on the stage. So in a way its a challenge to work with the limitations. Ron and Russell didn't want to see this as a songwriting showcase or an unplugged performance. The interest is using the limitations and making it into a new listening experience. As well as re-visiting the classic Sparks songbook, for not the sake of giving it a fresh airing, but how far one can take the material and set it in a new landscape.

“Two Hands, One Mouth” should not be seen as a 'live' album of hits. The album is not about a single performance, but how the new arrangements plays with the medium of doing the songs live. To re-think, re-model, and re-do is part of the process, and the finished album is the experiment at work. I call it an experiment because I think their songs can be re-thought on many levels. I am reminded of hearing various Thelonous Monk live albums, where one can hear the process of Monk's thoughts as he plays one of his familiar tunes. And that's the beauty of a performance, where the artist uses his material as a springboard to another level. Sparks' approach is more conceptual, in that they want to tear into their music and re-make it as a new piece of sorts. And the process is important, the fact that they perform these songs live without a band, and having the keyboards doing the keys, and the voice doing the voice – with no additional trickery, except using the skills of a sound-man.

Their “21 Albums in 21 Days” spectacular in London was to me the same thing as Marcel Duchamp taking his life's work and shrinking it to fit in a suitcase. Those series of shows was about capturing not a moment, but to preserve their catalog and if they can possibly do it live with respect to the original recordings. And they succeeded in doing that. For “Two Hands One Mouth” its a work that is not about capturing their songs, but to open them up to see what they are made of, and how the story can be told in a new setting or light. And what they have done with this new album is not only celebrate their songwriting skills, but also to take another journey to see how the works would react to a format that is very structural, yet at the same time it allows the songs to open up in their own fashion.

So yeah, a great album. And I can't wait till I see the show.
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