Sparks is little known outside its circle of devotees, who are die-harder than Bruce Willis. But despite the band’s ostensible current-gen appeal, most of their fans are actually getting ready to receive Social Security. So it was without surprise that this Gen-Yer was the youngest person in attendance at Sparks’s first American show in years at the Avalon on Hollywood and Vine.
Sparks is a family act, with brothers Ron and Russell Mael writing and singing the songs, respectively. Russell, the younger of the two, has been known throughout most of the band’s existence for his impressive falsetto range and powerful stage intensity. Years later, the brio is still there, but the range has gone from mezzo-soprano to Tony Soprano—hoarse cracking notes at the high end of the scale aren’t getting the job done. The competent backing band did their best to cover for him with blasting guitar riffs and smacking drums, but either you got it, or you don’t, and—God bless him for trying—Russell don’t (at least not anymore).
At the opposite end of the spectrum is older brother and songwriter/keyboardist Ron. Clad in a shirt and tie, and mustachioed a la John Waters, Ron stood stock still behind his keyboard for the entire show. He’s a talented player: For an encore, he came out wearing a set of fake, elongated arms and played a couple songs on the keyboard from a yard away. But while it’s a neat trick, the Talking Heads already cornered the market on this sort of thing with the famous “big suit” from Stop Making Sense.
And that’s the major problem with the whole show. It’s all rather done-to-death. For their first set, Sparks played through all the tracks on their latest album Hello Young Lovers. These are far too reliant on lyrical cleverness instead of the interesting, minimalist musicianship that the band was once known for. How many times can you go to the well before people start to get sick of the same basic beats and ostinato keyboard lines? Further, the new tracks all seem interchangeable with songs from Sparks’s previous album Lil’ Beethoven.
A somewhat embarrassing moment occurred when Sparks attempted to switch things up with a new, anti-Bush number “(Baby Baby) Can I Invade Your Country?” Before the song, Russell stated that the band has traditionally been “apolitical”—a status they would have been better served to maintain. No matter how you feel about Bush and his gang, there’s no excuse for bandwagon-jumping (which this song and its accompanying “troops marching” visuals are emblematic of), especially by a band whose wagon is so far past warranty.
Sparks’s second set consisted of a medley of songs from throughout their long history. These were generally better than the new stuff, mostly because they, ironically, sounded fresher and more original. Included here was the group’s one semi-hit, the excellent, pizzicato “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us,” as well as a mishmash of stuff I barely recognized and one Giorgio Moroder co-scripted tune, “Number One Song in Heaven.” Like much of Sparks’s late-’70s and ’80s output, the song has a distinct disco-dance floor feel and it hasn’t aged any better than tight, white Levis. In fact, for a moment during the second set I felt as if I’d been transported to a West Hollywood nightspot circa 1982.
Of course, Sparks could be playing in the back of a cargo container on Santa Monica pier with Fisher-Price instruments, and their fans would enjoy it. That’s what band loyalty is all about. For those less-than-die-hards, it might be worth it to catch a rare live show from a quirky, unique band. However, given the prosaic nature of the staging, you’re better off spending your 30 clams on a couple of the band’s better albums; Kimono My House and In Outer Space would get my votes.