Five years of stowaways – Part 5

So this concludes the celebration of this blog’s fifth birthday! One thousand, six hundred and thirty-five posts later, at an average of 6.2 posts per week. It’s no wonder there’s a bit of drivel mixed in here and there. OK, a lot, but you get my point.

What next for this blog? Well, it will continue for the foreseeable future, but it might start to wind down a bit more. A lot has changed in the last five years, as you might expect, and I fully expect it to change a lot in the future as well. It’s exactly two years since I gave up on the idea of trying to post every day, and now even five times a week seems a lot of work. But it will still be here, in some form, for as long as the music lasts.

Perhaps the most exciting release of the next few months is Hippopotamus, the new album from Sparks. I’m not clear whether this is one of the tracks on there, but of course it’s brilliant:

Retro chart for stowaways – 15 May 2004

I’m off on my holidays at the moment, so here’s the album chart from twelve years ago this week!

  1. Air – Talkie Walkie
  2. Pet Shop Boys – PopArt
  3. Goldfrapp – Black Cherry
  4. Dido – Life for Rent
  5. Erlend Øye – Erlend Øye – DJ-Kicks
  6. Zero 7 – When It Falls
  7. Sugababes – Three
  8. Dubstar – Stars – The Best of Dubstar
  9. Bent – Programmed to Love
  10. Sparks – Lil’ Beethoven

Greatest Hits – Vol. 9

Every so often when things are quiet, I like to take a bit of a breather and highlight some of the reviews you might have missed in recent times. Here’s another selection:

  • The Avalanches – Since I Left You
  • Camouflage – Spice Crackers
  • Enigma – MCMXC a.D.
  • Goldfrapp – Felt Mountain
  • Gotan Project – Lunático
  • Kraftwerk – Autobahn
  • Pet Shop Boys – Please
  • Sparks – Hello Young Lovers
  • Yello – Baby
  • Various Artists – Metropolis

Read and enjoy!

Retro chart for stowaways – 4 March 2006

The top ten albums from a decade ago:

  1. Goldfrapp – Supernature
  2. Röyksopp – Röyksopp’s Night Out
  3. Madonna – Confessions on a Dance Floor
  4. Sparks – Hello Young Lovers
  5. Depeche Mode – Playing the Angel
  6. Sugababes – Taller in More Ways
  7. Röyksopp – The Understanding
  8. a-ha – Analogue
  9. Pet Shop Boys – Battleship Potemkin (OST)
  10. Faithless – Forever Faithless – The Greatest Hits

Sparks – Hello Young Lovers

After all the decades they have spent in the music industry, Sparks should definitely know what they’re doing. Every couple of years, they reappear without much warning, promoting another new album. Typically, each one is somehow entirely unlike its predecessor and yet still completely brilliant. Occasionally, the quality drops – not much, but just enough to be noticeable.

Hello Young Lovers (2006) finds Sparks suffering somewhat from “difficult second album” syndrome, after 2002’s hugely acclaimed Lil’ Beethoven. The first song, Dick Around, shows heavy echoes of its predecessor – it’s theatrical and operatic, and it consists of long sections without drums. It’s more contemporary, insofar as Sparks have ever been contemporary, and ultimately sadly it comes across as a little confused.

After seven minutes or so of that, the lead single Perfume comes next. This is one of the best songs on here, with all of the charm that you would expect from the Mael brothers. Where it’s lacking is perhaps just a little on the lyrical front – it’s fun, but there’s nothing quite as absurd here as you sometimes get.

The dramatic The Very Next Fight follows, and then the curiously discordant (Baby Baby) Can I Invade Your Country. Some songs do include the trademark silly lyric writing, and this is one, although the alternative lyric which appears on one of the singles highlights the slight lack of direction here. On the album version, the result is fun, but somewhat lacking melodically.

Rock, Rock, Rock is closer – it sticks very much to the operatic sound of this and the previous album, but the daft lyric and catchy melody make their appearance very firmly this time, leading cleanly into what could well be the best song on the album, Metaphor.

It’s comforting and reassuring that after somewhere in the region of 35 years of making music, they are still able to produce songs like this, a completely bonkers song about how great metaphors are, and particularly how attractive they make you to the opposite sex.

Waterproof is equally silly, perhaps only lacking a little bit of the charm of its predecessor, and then comes the wonderfully ridiculous Here Kitty, a song about a cat which intentionally climbs trees in order to introduce its owner to firemen.

Then comes the supremely daft There’s No Such Thing as Aliens, and yes, that really is the name of a song. While the first couple of tracks on here might have been a little uncomfortable, by this end of the album Sparks are definitely on top form.

The last song is As I Sit to Play the Organ at Notre Dame Cathedral, which apart from the sombre and silly organ work doesn’t really introduce anything new in the way of concepts, but is a decent way to draw this release to a close.

Hello Young Lovers is definitely a slightly confused work, but ultimately it comes together pretty well, and you leave it happy in the knowledge that the Mael brothers are showing no sign of letting up even after this many years of making music.

You can still find Hello Young Lovers at all major retailers, such as here.

Christmas without a Prayer

It’s Christmas Eve, and for some reason I’m always a bit surprised when somebody turns up with a new Christmas song. This one, in particular – the brilliant Sparks have barely released anything new for half a decade now, and then they suddenly come up with this, Christmas without a Prayer. Season’s greetings!

Sparks – Balls

With so many albums under their belts, it would be difficult to pick a favourite by Sparks, but I don’t think many would choose their 2000 album Balls. It’s fifteen years old this week though, and positively bristling with potential hit singles, so it’s definitely worth listening again.

The opening track, also the title track, is brusque and forceful, with its repeated chorus of “balls,” and it is actually pretty funny too. There’s definitely something to it – the chanted lyrics are catchy, and the acid bass that bobbles along in the background is great – but it’s not the most melodic song ever.

Contrast this with the first single More Than a Sex Machine, which comes next. Released late the preceding year, it was their only single for that particular record company, leaving them with a somewhat drawn out process to get the album released. But it’s absolutely magnificent, and really deserved to be an enormous hit. Its downfall? Perhaps only that it ought to have been a hit in about 1995, rather than in the twenty-first century.

Sparks had, by 2000, firmly entered the world of cult music. With nearly three decades in the music business already, they had only ever managed a handful of hits in each country. Sadly this album wouldn’t add to their achievements, but it did at least come in rather nice colourful packaging.

Scheherazade comes next, a lovely analogue-sounding song, with plucked string pads and wobby synth sounds accompanying a particularly nice vocal. If you view this album as a continuation of 1995’s Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins, which would not be unfair, this piece would be a prime example of how the two releases fit together.

This is a Sparks album though, so there are always the sillier moments, of which Aeroflot is a great example. It’s pretty daft, but as is so often the case it’s also rather compelling. It’s not quite The Calm Before the Storm though, which is surely the finest song on Balls. Every bit as good as anything on the charts at the time, it entirely failed to make any impact at all, but it’s quite brilliant.

How to Get Your Ass Kicked (in which, perhaps in a concession to their huge European audience, they actually pronounce the word as “arse”) is a fun, but ultimately not entirely groundbreaking piece, while Bullet Train is an entertaining chanted track honouring the Japanese rail system. As with the opener, the latter struggles a little with melody, but otherwise there’s no shortage of ideas.

My favourite moment probably comes with It’s a Knockoff, which pulls together some remarkably silly lyrics with a very catchy melody, resulting in a classic Sparks song. Irreplaceable and It’s Educational, which follow, both have their moments of daftness too, and both fit into the duo’s cannon perfectly.

The closing track is The Angels, the festive single version of which saw the duo collaborate with their erstwhile producer Tony Visconti, and this album version is, to the best of my knowledge, the only example of Sparks‘ use of the F-bomb, which comes as something of a surprise. Despite that, it’s a lovely song, and a great way to close the album. Sixteen or seventeen albums on, the Mael brothers were still going strong.

The essential version of Balls is probably this 2008 reissue, which was released directly through the band’s own record label.