Sparks have a ball

So the Plagiarism set was a fun affair — the fact that they ended up doing three songs twice, just like on the original album and like there in two different styles, shows the level of keeping it all as accurate as they could. (Telling comment from Russell after the second “This Town” — ‘the country and western version will be up later!’) Some songs ended up sounding less striking when reworked for a live context — the version of “Angst In My Pants” came across a touch flat at points, then again I’m a huge fan of that song’s new take — but they did include both strings through most of the songs as well as some horns, to lovely effect.

Meantime, the question of what guests would or wouldn’t show wasn’t finally answered until the end. That Faith No More wouldn’t be able to show was a given — would have been fun if Mike Patton could have made it but hey — while Erasure was ruled out just because Vince Clarke’s been busy with the Yaz reunion. But when the penultimate song was started up — the striking reinterpretation of the first half of “The Number One Song In Heaven” — there was a cheer and lo and behold, Jimmy Somerville, all in white, coming out to trade verses with Russell and playfully kneel to the Master (aka Ron). As the original version wasn’t a duet, only featuring Somerville, this was something else again and the crowd ate it up. As did I!

As I mentioned yesterday, from here on in the Sparks shows start covering ‘my’ era, or at least the time when I first started seeing their shows regularly. Balls was the first album I saw them actively tour for as such and so for me the baseline Sparks live experience was the combination of Ron, Russell and Tammy Glover, who I hear will be back in her usual spot on drums either tonight or on Tuesday. Personally I thought they did more than fine with that, but I can see why longtime fans had missed the straight-up rock band lineups as well. The overall surprises after tonight will be less but assuming that the Mother Superior guys are still onboard and busting out the guitars it should lend a good kick to a number of the tracks.

As before, the final version of the piece below is in the second part of this Arthur issue, while tonight’s show will be accessible here:

BALLS

Balls was a long time coming, with Sparks, now appearing on a vaguely regular basis for a couple of shows here and there at a time in Southern California and then over in Europe, performing a song or two in their live sets but otherwise keeping mum about it. Said sets, however, did also serve to introduce an important new member of the band – drummer Tammy Glover, who had taken over the role of previous touring drummer Christine in time for shows around the release of Plagiarism. Fully listed as a bandmember in time for Balls’s release, she brought her own dramatic kick to the end results, though admittedly the album was in many ways a thematic sequel to Gratuitous Sax, the band’s last original album from six years previous.

The sense of it being a sequel lay less in the exact sound of the album than the influences that fed into it – in the same way that Gratuitous Sax (and the more electronic reworkings on Plagiarism) drew on fluid techno pulses, Balls took further ideas from harsher hip-hop and dance influences, especially as interpreted further in groups like the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers, who like Russell in particular were freaks for Public Enemy and the Ultramagnetic MCs. The brawling, drum-heavy attack of the title track, which opened the album on a fierce note, was definitely more than a little touched by the Prodigy’s “Firestarter,” though Russell’s gleeful singing was hardly Keith Flint’s rasp – and a good thing too, since that idea is pretty hard to imagine – while the core melody remained a pleasant affair for all the air-raid siren noises included. “Aeroflot” and “It’s Educational” also ride the electroriffs hard, as close to a guitar version of the group at this point as they reached.

In retrospect Balls can readily be seen as the farewell to an era, with the Maels seeing out their dance-influenced nineties on their own terms rather than limply clinging out to an exhausted approach as Interior Design so unfortunately did. Like Gratuitous Sax, it’s not a complete classic, though it’s a stronger album than others in the band’s extensive history, with Russell’s voice still as supple as ever after three decades and memorable melodies abounding along with the usual dry wit – while the use of strings on many songs, while calling to mind Plagiarism, also strongly hints at where the band was about to go next. The Mael gift for inspired or cliché-reworking song titles is in full effect – samples include the horn/string-tinged and very Gratuitous-like “The Calm Before the Storm” and “More Than a Sex Machine” – while “How to Get Your Ass Kicked” is, naturally, one of the gentlest songs on the album. Meanwhile, the concluding “The Angels” makes for a sweet, lush end not merely to the album but to a lifecycle of the group – and not only that, it gets away with lines like “I saw the angels cry/They feel ashamed/Because you look so fucking good.”

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