Music Features

Overlooked Albums #20: Sparks - Kimono My House

The early seventies were a low point for wit and humor. Dylan seemed to have lost his sarcastic mojo, though some claim Self Portrait was a joke on us. Heavy metal and boogie bands were dreary, and it would be years before This Is Spinal Tap found the funny in smelly gloves. Prog-rock then was lost in a journey up the intestinal tract. One could always rely on The Kinks for social satire, at that point diluted by concept albums. In this climate of brow-furrowing earnestness, only one band readdressed the imbalance, and that was Sparks.  

The main members of Sparks are brothers Ron and Russell Mael from California, whose first album was recorded under the name Halfnelson. A name change and a second album were both met with indifference by the American public. Ron and Russell ditched the original lineup and left for pastures new in the UK, hoping to find kindred spirits. It proved to be a sound decision. The new lineup of Dinky Diamond (drums), Martin Gordon (bass), and Martin Fisher (guitar) added a glam sheen to the songs, which became more focused and nimble. Muff Winwood’s production added muscle to the sound, and the Maels found themselves with a number 2 hit on the UK charts with This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us, an ode to clinical anxiety mixing hard rock and opera. The song became Sparks' calling card, and it opens Kimono My House with all guns blazing.

The album’s music is quirky; deliberately so. Russell sings high notes and falsetto throughout to keep up with Ron’s melodies, which are shaped from his piano’s high keys. But Russell’s voice is remarkably pliant. Thank God It’s Not Christmas is his best vocal performance here, sounding like a louche bon-vivant to rival Bryan Ferry.

Russell is the main focus onstage, a curly-haired dynamo. Ron is the straight man, stoned-faced, fashionably dressed for the 1930s. But behind the Hitler moustache we find the group’s musical motor. He wrote the bulk of the songs on Kimono... with a sardonic wit all his own.  One would have to go back to the song lyrics written by P.G. Wodehouse for Jerome Kern to find an equivalent. Just the choice of subjects brings a smile to the face: Albert Einstein’s devoted parents (Talent Is An Asset), a suicide pact (Here In Heaven), vanity (Falling In Love With Myself Again) and sexual theory put to practice (Amateur Hour). All the songs have great lines. Few contemporaries, virtually none, could start a song with: I tried to tell you in the night that with a girl like you I could do without guided tours / You tried to tell me in the day that that your leading exports were textiles and iron ore (Hasta Mañana, Monsieur).

For all its cleverness and comedic savvy, Sparks’ music was ignored in their homeland, though not for lack of trying. Kimono My House, however, gave impulse to a long career supported by loyal fans. The music would change from record to record, and they would go from guitar-driven rock (Big Beat), to California pop (Introducing Sparks), to new wave (Angst In My Pants). For some time they were rock ‘n’ roll people in a disco world, gaining them some chart entries in Europe that proved to be profitable but unchallenging. In America, they started to see success around 1983 with Cool Places, starting a string of dance-chart hits in a synth pop style.

For a while, Sparks existed outside the critical radar, until the release of Lil’ Beethoven in 2002. With orchestral arrangements, found sounds, and minimalist lyrics, that album proved to be the most original records produced that year. If there’s a constant to Sparks, it’s their staunch efforts to try new sounds. Although there’s a musical distance between Kimono... and Lil’ Beethoven, one basic element remains: a sparkling wit that is still fresh after all all these years.

Sparks most recent record to date is The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, which has received glowing reviews. After 22 albums, Sparks remains one of the most inventive bands around. More importantly, they still make me laugh.