Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Sparks -- Indiscreet, Carling Academy at Islington, May 21, 2008

This was the most challenging show of the five shows so far, and perhaps of the whole stand. Indiscreet is Sparks' big production, with Tony Visconti aiding them with loads of strings and horns. The band didn't want to disappoint, and there were strings and horns. The end result is that there were more flaws in this show than the others. However, this was certainly offset by the truly great moments.

The strings were supplied by the opener, a Belgian whose name I've already forgotten. He opened his set with a piano rendition of "This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us" and then expressed his love for both Sparks and the album on tap for the night.

Then he played some honest-to-god chamber pop with a five piece string section (bass, three violins and a cello). I liked the songs and his lyrics were interesting, but his vocals, while not terrible, were the weak link. So the support was alright, but with a better singer might have really been something. But the contribution from the strings was just beginning.

Unfortunately, one member of the sting section seemed to blank out during his moment in the sun. The gent was called upon to provide some fiddling for "It Ain't 1918", and he did his part in the intro. And then he fell silent. He kept raising his instrument slightly, appearing ready to play, but I could see in his eyes that he was utterly confused as to when he was to come in. So the remainder of the song was played sans violin.

This was not a problem, as everyone else was spot on. Leading the way was Russell Mael. Five shows into the residency, and he sounds better and better every night. Moreso than any other night, there were times when I could have closed my eyes and imagined I was hearing the album. Yes, he was that good.

One of those times was on one of Russell's rare solo compositions, "Pineapple". The richness and the fullness of his vocal was astonishing. However, my eyes would have opened during the second verse, because the backing vocals, although they sounded good, were inaccurate. Throughout the song, Jim, Marcus and Steven (McDonald) kept singing "shares are gonna divide/if in us you confide", instead of changing the backing with each verse. Yes, I'm quibbling.

There were other rough patches in a few songs, but none of them were damaging. One song seemed a bit flat, but I think that's more because of the company it was keeping. "The Lady Is Lingering" is a perfectly fine song, but the other songs on the album are so full, it seemed a bit puny in comparison.

The other rockers on the album were outstanding. "Happy Hunting Ground" and "How Are You Getting Home" were both driven by Steven Nistor's fab drumming and, respectively, Jim Wilson's pithy guitar leads and Ron Mael's swinging piano. And "Hospitality On Parade", a number that Sparks has had in their sets in recent years, is still such a great gem, and when the guitars finally kick in, everyone feels like royalty.

But the biggest highlights were the augmented songs. The full string compliment came out for "Under The Table With Her" (correction from when I spaced out and typed "Without Using Hands", see comment below, thanks), and it sounded absolutely brilliant. Ron added to vocals, with a quick turn as the waiter, and then returned to his keyboards looking puzzled at the microphone in his hand. A bunch of high school kids were conscripted to provide brass for two songs. It took them a few measures or so to catch up with "Looks Looks Looks", but once they did, I was smiling like Herbert Hoover (or Hoobert Heever).

Yet all of those paled in comparison to the top performance of the night, the outstanding rendition of "Get In The Swing". Here, the teenage horn section was ready from note one, and the full glory of one of the oddest pop songs to every hit the British charts blossomed in full view. The shifting tempos, the rousing chorus, the hilarious lyrics, played with vim and vigor to spare. As many great renditions as I saw during my five nights, this had to be the tops for me. This is a song that I've always liked, but this time around it became a classic.

The night was concluded with "Gone With The Wind" and after Russell gave his usual thank yous, Ron stepped up to the mike to make some gracious comments. As he was talking about exceeding expectations, someone yelled out, "You sound fucking brilliant" or something along those lines. Ron put the mike down on the drumstand and walked off, until he was encouraged to go back, and he finished off his remarks about what a great experience the fans have this for him.

And this is what strikes me most about this whole shebang. For all of the humor and irony, Sparks has such a high degree of sincerity to what it does . As the band's career has taken more directions than Lombard Street in San Francisco, it has developed a hardcore fan base that has supported them all of the way (with new fans cropping up all the time). This residency is a publicity stunt, but, even better, it's a gift to the fans.

Everyone who is coming to these shows loves Sparks. I think that everyone coming out loves them even more. From that standpoint, these shows couldn't be any less than a rousing success.


Less Lee said...

I'm really enjoying these!

Would you mind if I put a link to each of your reviews in the July/August Popshifter? I'm gathering reviews of each show for that issue and would love to include a link to your blog posts.

mrhonorama said...

I wouldn't mind at all. Thanks!

godscomic said...

Although I couldn't make the shows, the web cast and first hand accounts are making things a little better. Thanks for posting your reviews.
However, I think you mean Under The Table With Her when you mention Without Using Hands.

Anonymous said...

Since I were supposed to be there for just this one concert, I am very thrilled to read your fantastic review! It feels like I actually went! Thank you!

Swede Sue