Sparks get around to pulling a rabbit or two…

Recuperating here from an actual show — last night’s brilliant Cure show, about which more later this afternoon if I don’t otherwise take a nap or something, which is very likely! But yesterday’s In Outer Space performance, while somewhat afflicted by mixing and feed troubles, proved good fun, though the killer final touch of Russell hitting Ron in the puss with a cream pie, in homage to the album cover, was the highlight!

There’s no question today’s show will happen but whether or not it will be broadcast is another question; the CDPulse.com site has gone down and is still not back with ninety minutes to go before the start of the concert. [EDIT — see below for more information.] It will be a pity if it’s missed because I’m relistening to Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat and I’ve forgotten how sharp this album was, honestly! Certainly the title track is much more of an aggressive brawl than I’d remembered.

As before, the final version of the piece below is in the second part of this Arthur issue, while tonight’s show would normally be accessible here, but Sparks’s manager Sue has indicated this page will be the stand-in:

http://www.justin.tv/allsparks

PULLING RABBITS OUT OF A HAT

Though In Outer Space had its moments and even a top 40 hit single, the Maels clearly felt a little change was needed for their next album – they switched back to using an outside producer, in this case Ian Little, while concert keyboardist James Goodwin departed to be replaced by John Thomas, who would eventually become the Maels’ regular studio mixer and engineer. Also, countering a tendency to reduce their previously hyperactive lyrical vocabulary with a simplicity that verged on the simplistic – nearly anything that Sparks fanatic Billy Mackenzie was releasing at the time as part of the Associates far outstripped such efforts as “Prayin’ For a Party” – Ron and Russell made a much more conscious effort to amp up their amused critique of the human species out in the field instead of relying only on the performance to imply it, as “Cool Places” admittedly did winningly well.

The resultant Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat – coming in another classic cover, with a none-more-eighties style painting showing a typically stone-faced Ron operating Russell as a hand puppet – made less of a commercial mark but felt much more cohesive all around, including that relatively rarest of Sparks efforts, a straightforward love song. “With All My Might,” with its gentle, warm chorus and sprightly arrangement, recalls “When I’m With You” in its winningly romantic spirit, this time not even spiked slightly a self-conscious verse. That latter sentiment, however, appears in full on another one of the album’s high points, “A Song That Sings Itself” – even if it doesn’t capture the outrageous heights of “The Number One Song in Heaven,” Ron’s sparkling keyboard loop and the great full-band performance, not to mention Russell’s calm but still almost heroic vocals, with a great delivery on the verses in particular, resulted in a definite fan favorite then and since.

As for the rest of the album, if Pulling Rabbits is Sparks regrettably starting to sound less like its own distinct take on New Wave and synth-pop and a touch more like what the eighties mainstream did with it – check the already-starting-to-be-overused orchestral synth-hits on the otherwise great title track, opening the album with an energetic bang – it’s still more varied than In Outer Space and more intent on showing that the clever brain lurking at the heart of Sparks at its best hasn’t gone anywhere. Squelchy keyboard break aside, “Pretending to Be Drunk,” with the narrator arguing that his plan was to try and impress an unnamed love with his behavior, is an absolute classic – as unique a take on a subject as “Tits” was back on Indiscreet – while “Everybody Move,” the most basic song on the face of it, has this great riff on exercise/aerobics culture: “Unwanted pounds will disappear/You’ll have a itty bitty rear/Better lay off of the beer.”

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