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Indie 500: Sparks, Lil Wayne, Belle and Sebastian

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Indie 500: Sparks, Lil Wayne, Belle and Sebastian

I remember a friend telling me once about how, in some dreadful class where they purport to teach how to structure scripts properly or something equally proscriptive, he had to defend Scream. The charge was that Scream lacks emotion, to which he reasonably responded that sarcasm does have an emotional component. Flash-forward to “Strange Animal,” the second song on Sparks’ 21st album, Exotic Creatures Of The Deep, where auto-critique leads the brothers Mael (Russell and Ron) to spit back one of their most common criticisms (lots of snark, not much depth) unadulterated: “This song lacks a heart ... an emotional core/Isn’t that what songs are for?” Answer: not necessarily. Songs can be emotions, but they can also just be musical ideas worked out, or they can be satire, or they can be jokes on how long an inane pun can be developed.

I’ve been waving the flag for Sparks a good five years now, which is a good way to annoy people quickly, even people who tolerate seemingly more-abrasive acts like The Fiery Furnaces. Two years ago, when Hello Young Lovers came out, my prose was much more excitable: “I honestly believe that Sparks are the most hateful band in pop music today,” I wrote (and sorry to quote myself, but this is better than any intro I’ve been working on for a few days now).

“They seem to hate the very medium they’re working in, having been engaged this entire millennium in a project to actively annoy any remaining rockists by working pretty much solely without a drum kit or any of the conventional staples of a rock band, concentrating instead on tape loops, repetition, and operatic multi-tracked vocals. Their lyrics are almost uniformly snide and dismissive, particularly towards women, who the Mael brothers seem to regard solely as succubi. And it’s the fact that they’re brothers who’ve worked together for 36 years now that’s creepiest of all: they’re siblings who seemingly turned their back on the world a long time ago, preferring to concentrate on their own insular jokes and obsessions.”

I’d like to stress the music more now: jokes get old, but just because the Maels are funny (unless, again, you think they’re just annoying) doesn’t mean they’re not making some of the most compelling, sophisticated music around.

For what it’s worth, Exotic Creatures is a return to the kind of songwriting that involves verses and choruses, and hence presumably a little easier to stomach; Sparks no longer sounds like Philip Glass arranging a hysterical Queen tribute band. (And yes, I know that Queen allegedly ripped Sparks off whole-sale. I’m not even qualified to weigh in on that.) A mock-ethereal intro declares “I don’t care if you love me/just so you like me,” tackling the problem head-on: I’ve never met anyone who did anything but despise Sparks from the moment I put them on, and Sparks seem acutely aware that they only have cultists, not moderate fans. “Good Morning” picks up where the last album’s closer, “As I Sit Down To Play The Organ At The Notre Dame Cathedral,” left off: in that surprisingly epic song, a church organist expressed his anger that his exceptional playing was overshadowed by everyone coming to genuflect to God instead. Nothing here comes close to that kind of narrative complexity, which is OK. Here, the Maels are much peppier after a one-night stand: “Thank you God, for something rare as this/what must have been a holy night of bliss.” Har har, though it all falls apart once she leaves: “Does ’dohsvedanya’ really mean good morning?”

Sparks aren’t a joke: they’re a walking referendum on the current state of pop music, where it is and isn’t going. Sometimes the joke is a simple one while the music is complicated: “(She Got Me) Pregnant,” which is exactly what it sounds like, or “I’ve Never Been High,” whose gothic swells and overwrought choruses make the mock-tragedy a madrigal of sorts. Sparks’ guitarist for a while now has been Dean Menta, ex-Faith No More, who hasn’t changed his ways one damn bit: his jagged bits of metal sound exactly as anachronistic in one context as another (and given that he’s worked with arch-weirdo Mike Patton, I doubt Menta is sweating the Maels one bit). So they’re fusing Gilbert & Sullivan lyrics, four-part harmony, keyboard loops and, uh, metal guitar solos. Works for me.

As a friend of mine pointed out, having an opinion about the quality of Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III (especially at this late date) is pretty much beside the point: it’s a bona-fide phenomenon, once again briefly saving the rap industry from sinking into a permanent morass of declining sales. How and why are pretty much irrelevant. There’s some obvious answers that have nothing to do with quality (which is never the right answer): he’s been around for a while, he’s sold fairly well in the past (though never this well as a solo artist), he’s busted his ass as a guest on umpteen otherwise unmemorable tracks, his persona combines the “hardness” of thug rappers with a fashion sense that’s somewhat iconoclastic (tight jeans! No matter how many times he says “no homo,” that’s gonna piss people off). The release of Tha Carter III, which was threatening to turn into a mini-Detox situation, qualifies as a relief to people who wondered if he’d ever get it together.

Mostly, what Tha Carter III makes me realize is that I’ll never be a mixtape kind of guy, no matter how I try. Da Drought III has lots of brilliance, but I’m just not that interested in hearing jacked beats that have long worn out their groove in my head, much less for two hours in succession. Tha Carter III is the finest, most cohesive 70+ minutes of rap music I’ve heard that doesn’t come from a single source (i.e., not Kanye or the all-Neptunes triumphs of Clipse). The usual high-paid all-stars are all here. Here’s Kanye with “Comfortable,” doing what comes most naturally to him, i.e. arranging lush strings into patterns where you can’t see the seams, five minutes of bliss. Here’s David Banner being a complete fucking weirdo on “La La,” arranging a kids’ glockenspiel and random infantile chanting into a strangely insinuating mixture. And here’s Swizz Beatz ... wait, that’s not a rev-’em-up song. “Dr. Carter,” my pick of the litter, finds Wayne attempting to restore to health nothing less than hip-hop itself (no surprise, he pulls it off, and with half the self-righteous tongue-clicking of Common). To get there, he has to keep going, building up steam and energy while a David Axelrod sample builds into a majestic orchestral swell; very Aaron Copland, with sunrise deferred twice as Wayne loses two patients, then saves the third. And don’t even get me started on ridiculously unlikely single “A Milli,” which takes Steve Reich festishization further than Timbaland ever dared. This is one musically meaty album.

Wayne’s voice makes him (I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again) the Stephen Malkmus of hip-hop. It quivers, screams hysterically, stretches out in a nearly incomprehensible drawl, flirts with patois, and never for a moment becomes predictable. The voice is arguably more important than the content. With some notable exceptions (“Dr. Carter” among them), Wayne’s rapping style is roughly equivalent to the analogies portion of the SAT, only the links of association never stop. Sometimes they’re clever, sometimes they’re stupid: “Mrs. Officer,” probably the dumbest track, keeps spinning lame puns on sex with a lady cop (her number’s 911!). I’ll confess to a soft spot for “Lollipop,” where Wayne keeps insisting a young lady wants to ” lick the (w)rapper” with all the glee of a terrible old-school “Muppet Show” pun. (File it alongside “Flashing Lights” and “Blinded By The Lights” as surprisingly effective club songs that replicate strobe lights musically—except Wayne’s are obviously slowed down by drink—even though only Wayne loses his hyper-verbal nature fully. Figuring out that the man with hip-hop’s voice should take it one step further with a vocoder is pretty genius.) The one mode Wayne can’t adopt is strident confidence: “Mr. Carter” is cool and everything, but saying “I am him and he is me” is the kind of empty assertion that depends entirely on cadence and intonation. Fortunately, Jay-Z shows up to deliver this otherwise worthless line the way it should be. My only real caveat: dear sir, please stop comparing yourself to shit (“I’m the shit nigga get the fuck out of my toilet” is one of the less gag-worthy lines). Then again, if we tolerated a scatalogical fixation in Dave Chappelle, I suppose Wayne can get a pass as well. Rap album of the year? We’ll wait and see—the release calendar for the rest of the year is crowded with heavy contenders—but it’s certainly a worthy candidate.

Part of the column slow-down on my end has a lot to do with something that generally happens around this time of year if it’s been a weak year musically (and yes, from where I sit, it has): I start listening to old favorites and older albums that fill in the gaps of my fandom. Example: Belle and Sebastian’s 1996 debut Tigermilk. I came late to B&S; if you’ve been reading this column for a while, I guess it’s a bit weird that someone as musically wimpy as me could have avoided them. My excuse: a dear friend played “Seeing Other People” every time we got in a car together one summer. This was about 150 fucking times. After that, I refused to listen to B&S for a year. Then there was NYU: freshman year, it seemed no party was complete without someone blasting “Lazy Line Painter Jane.” Again, fine, but really? Also, Belle & Sebastian fans are even more deranged than, say, They Might Be Giants cultists: on the page for opening track “The State I Am In,” there’s Talmudic comments like “your point is (of course) only correct if you are talking about the version from Tigermilk. The lyrics are correct for the superior version from the Dog on Wheels EP.” Frightening stuff, though of course this is nothing new; surely being a Smiths fan in the ’80s was much the same, only without the sense of community.

I’ve come around on B&S’s charms, of course; they were also one of those bands who I mistakenly assumed that every one of their songs sounded the same, which is both true in a macro way (though not so much of late, but in Phase I up to Dear Catastrophe Waitress anyway) and irrelevant on the micro level, because they do so much within their boundaries. (See also: Of Montreal, The Strokes.) Tigermilk pretty much maps out all the lyrical territory Stuart Murdoch’s been plowing ever since: Catholic guilt, crippling bookishness, sexual confusion. I can’t help but noting “The State I Am In” declares “I was happy for a day in 1975.” This would make Murdoch happy for one day when he was seven years old (and no, I don’t care that he writes the songs “in character”; the band’s image and their songs are, at a certain level, the same damn thing). Tigermilk has aged well—especially for a limited-pressing album that was just supposed to be a project for a music business university course—aside from “Electric Renaissance,” a would-be rave commentary that timestamped itself; stick with Pulp’s “Sorted For E’s And Wizz.” Listening to the album is one of those happy experiences that reinforces everything you liked about a band while filling in some of the gaps about where they came from. Not much more to say, except serving notice that—for reasons that will eventually become clear—this column may be a little anachronistically heavy on Britpop for a while. It’s either that or writing about The Strokes over and over, because that’s been getting way too much play in my house. It never dies.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.