Sunday, October 15, 2006

Vinyl Tap: Sparks - Kimono My House

I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #27:

It was pure pop, but it just wasn't for now people, as Nick Lowe would phrase it. Sparks, as oddly anachronistic as main songwriter and keyboardist Ron Mael’s catatonic Charlie Chaplin facade, came along much too late for the Gilbert and Sullivan-style comic operas their work suggests, and a few years too early for the first ripples of skinny-tie new wave, which might have fully embraced the Los Angeles-based band.

So leaving behind the vicissitudes of the fickle glam fandom in America to logically take their infectious and witty Brit-beat confections to the land of the 19th-century British music hall, Ron and, incongruously, his seemingly standard-issue golden-god vocalist brother Russell, found a home and waiting arms in London. It wasn’t long before they formed a new band and success came along with their 1974 recording of the quirky Kinks-some Kimono My House, sparked with a potent, if unlikely, combination of wily wordplay and big dumb fun.

The lead-off cut, a big hit in Britain, fulfills that complexity -- but with an American twist. While retaining an operatic kill-the-wabbit Euro-aura that showcases Russell’s acquirable-taste of a soaring falsetto, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us” nonetheless lyrically presents a western horse-opera chorus replete with rifle blasts to complement the gunslinger bravado. In addition, a Walter Mitty-esque fantasy element plays throughout, further cementing -- even in the most mundane of circumstances -- a sense of rugged and individualistic American heroics:
    Zoo time is she and you time
    The mammals are your favourite type, and you want her tonight
    Heartbeat, increasing heartbeat
    You hear the thunder of stampeding rhinos, elephants and tacky tigers
    This town ain't big enough for the both of us
    And it ain't me who's gonna leave…

    …Daily, except for Sunday
    You dawdle in to the cafe where you meet her each day
    Heartbeat, increasing heartbeat
    As 20 cannibals have hold of you, they need their protein just like you do
    This town ain't big enough for the both of us
    And it ain't me who's gonna leave…

“It’s a lot like playing the violin / You cannot start off and be Yehudi Menuhin,” sums up an ode to adolescent lust, the whimsical and wistful “Amateur Hour.”  The song summons up the Kinks, not only in the invocation of “Waterloo Sunset”-style background harmonies, but lyrically as well. Then again, as “Amateur Hour goes on and on / When you turn pro you know she'll let you know,” consider it The Village Green Preservation Society gone relatively wild:
    Lawns grow plush in the hinterlands
    It's the perfect little setting for the one night stands
    Now the drapes are drawn and the lights are out
    It's the time to put in practice what you've dreamed about

    She can show you what you must do
    To be more like people better than you…

In another, the appropriately histrionic and hilariously over-the-top “Here In Heaven,” a Romeo ponders plans gone awry, lamenting his fate and the consequences of “Second thoughts, for eternity, for eternity, for eternity...”: 
    Here, there are lots of things to do
    And a panoramic view
    Of the universe completely surrounding you
    And here you cannot buy souvenirs
    For you're never going back, never, never
    Basically, I guess it could be worse
    Yes, I do suppose it could be worse

    Here, there are many, many sheep
    And the people only sleep
    And awake to tell how gory and gruesome was their end
    And I don't have many friends
    And it's really very clean and I'm thinking
    Juliet, you broke our little pact
    Juliet, I'm never coming back…

These three samples of the cornucopia of melodious smarty-pants pop smarts that comprises Kimono My House are just on the first side. Other songs include one about a narcissist “falling in love with myself again,” a boy genius “scribbling things, genius things,” and a complaints department sales clerk threatening to “dive off the mezzanine if one more points at crooked seams.”

Travelers take center stage in the doom-bluesy “Equator,” wherein the narrator, seemingly ditched by his love interest, still harbors hope, though “All of the gifts are now melted or dead.” And in "Hasta Manana Monsieur" a naïve traveler is in over his head as he contends with an unexpected foreign affair: “You mentioned Kant and I was shocked... so shocked / You know, where I come from, none of the girls have such foul tongues.”

Foul tongues, sharp tongues, silver tongues -- a variety of situations and circumstances from the everyday to the exotic take shape and are expressed in the gamut-running words and music of the Mael brothers.  Sparks would eventually move back to America and continue on in different incarnations with varying degrees of success, but one of the heights so far in their career lies in their invitation to Kimono My House.


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