Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Sparks - Hippopotamus

Review by Mike Kimmel

September 8 of this year saw Sparks release their 23rd studio album of their over-four-decade career. Thank heavens for Amazon's AutoRip feature or I'd be really cheesed that my physical copy of the CD is delayed for some reason with no known date that it will ship. Of course, that means I paid $9.something for the autorip and another $25 for the Japanese import version I found.

There are 15 tracks on the US release. There are 16 tracks (the same 15 as the US release plus one bonus track) on the Japan only release, and I've done my due diligence. The Japan bonus track is included in the review. How could it not be? It's typical Sparks at their sarcastic and irreverent best. You'll feel the same way once you read a bit about the tune.

The reception has been somewhat scary, to be honest. With the exception of the UK's Q magazine, Hippopotamus has gotten a minimum of four out of five stars. Q magazine is a fairly influential music magazine in the United Kingdom, though there have been some aspersions cast regarding whether the Q staff understands that it IS about the music……or is it about the money?

In any event, Q gave Hippopotamus three out of five stars, which still isn't that bad – but for a magazine supposedly so tuned in to the music scene it seems to be a bit of an insult; particularly for a supposedly respected music rag in the country in which the band is most famous! Makes little to no difference, I think. Sparks has been, is, and will continue to be hugely popular in the UK, regardless of Q.

On to the music!

Have you ever had someone act like they've got something terribly important to say, they get your attention, then act like they forget what they were going to say, but it was "Probably Nothing".

"Something to tell you, but now I've forgotten. It was probably nothing. I'm sure it was nothing." Then the other member of the conversation walks away. "Why are you looking at me in that way?"

The tried and true?

Go for what you know? (nod to the Pat Travers Band's great live LP)

The devil that you know? Maybe not quite that far.

"The tried and true is good enough for me and you. It's good enough. The Missionary Position!" Possibly an ode to the Bob Seger hit from years ago, "Horizontal Bop". Sparks doesn't need approval from the acrobats or the avant garde in the audience. "The Missionary Position" keeps them both smiling.

"Edith Piaf (Said it Better Than Me)" follows at track number three. Because it was Sparks and because they've done this to me before, I started researching Edith Piaf. The "IT" that she said better than Russell was "Je ne regrette rien", which is French for "I regret nothing."

Because of the frequent references to historical persons, places, and things in Sparks songs, I'm used to looking things up on the Internet so I understand better. This one was a little easier. I had four years of French One, so I knew that whatever the quote was happened to be in French!

I also like going to yard sales and thrift stores looking for CDs (HEY! I found a Prissteens CD at a garage sale recently, so it's worth it), and I found a CD I couldn't resist buying. Would not have looked twice at it had it not been for Hippopotamus, but when I saw Mireille Mathieu Chante Piaf, I couldn't resist.

I mentioned that fact in a brief review I had posted on Amazon and was fairly quickly long-distance bitch-slapped by an obvious Piaf fan. A French Amazon customer sort of poo-pooed my attempt to familiarize myself with Piaf by purchasing a Mathieu CD. Saying that he was French, he suggested that all I needed to do to get that familiarization was visit YouTube. Basically 'Nuff said!’

He was decent about it, and I appreciated the information. Still, it shows the reach of the band. Less than a day after the Sparks review is posted, there is a response to/comment about the content of the review from a reader in France.

Impressive, I say!

Living in The Great Midwest (beautiful suburban St. Louis – currently the fourth highest murder rate in the US striving for that coveted number one spot – I also learned yesterday that police in the St. Louis area shoot more people than do police in other large cities - eesh), furniture of Scandinavian design has been of the utmost interest. A year or so ago, St. Louis landed a gigundous IKEA store on the west side of the downtown area.

Alternately described as minimalistically or simplistically designed, IKEA stock can largely be described as being of "Scandinavian Design".

The effect is described as "…time and space, intertwined, elegance, simple lines, Scandinavian design. Every line, every shape, sculptural, no escape, its Scandinavian design."

Number 5 clocks in with "Giddy, Giddy, giddy. Our entire city. Everyone displaying an immense amount of giddiness." Followed by an exchange of greetings: "How are you?" "I'm pretty giddy. Last week was a pity. Had a touch of flu and felt a little less than giddy. Now I'm back to giddy."

What we have here is an entire track about an entire city with an entirely giddy attitude which manifests itself in various ways. Get home from work and kick up both your giddy heels. Kids are asleep and the flower of your life is thinking giddy. The kids are acting up. Just send them to bed until they're giddy.

Then a scientific group from another, less giddy city arrives to study the existent giddiness, and they're unable to discern the reason for the giddiness.

Yes, too much time on one song, but if you want to see how to write a song about pretty much anything you want, here is a glowing example.

A comedian many years ago did a bit about "taking the Lord's name in vain". "He’s working on hunger and stopping the wars…" and a whole lot of other things too important to be distracted by someone cursing.

There was a lot more to it than that, but you get the general gist of the idea. #6 is a continuation of that idea. In "What the Hell is it This Time?".

"But show consideration when you pray in demands. His plate is filled with famine and with clean wholesome air." "You've asked him for redemption twenty times in the past. And twenty times he's granted it, and again you have asked. But twenty is the limit and he's now getting peeved. And when he gets peeved ..."

You're bound to get the eventual "It's you again, it's you again, you get on my nerves. What the hell is it this time? I've billions to serve. You get on my nerves."

I think "Unaware" is less of an indictment against a person than it is a wish that he could make her aware that she should stay unaware. Bob Seger said it best, I think: "Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then."

And now…On to the title track.

"Hippo! Hippo! Hooray!" (Seewhutahdidthar?)

I love this song possibly more than I love the Japan-only bonus track. It's filled with the types of references that really make Sparks Sparks!

"There's a hippopotamus, a hippopotamus, a hippopotamus in my pool. How did it get there? How did it get there? How did it get there? I don't know."

Like with Robin Zander and his occasional scream, Sparks often takes heat for repeating the same lyrics often through a song. "Hippopotamus" is the perfect example of why those who complain about that should simply have a Coke and a smile and shut the hell up!

Other unexpected items that have wound up in the Sparks pool include:
-A book by anonymous. (No, I've not read it. When it dries out I'll have a go.)
-A painting by Hieronymus (Bosch, by Hieronymus.)
-A Volkswagen Microbus (A trippy old hippy driving a '58 Microbus.)
-Titus Andronicus (Wearing a snorkel, excellent swimmer looking much trimmer…)
-A woman with an abacus (She looks Chinese. Not that I'm prejudiced…)

 "Thrown in a hippo, a little Dutch art. An actor performing a Shakespearean part. Summary book and Germanic van. Asian lady, isn't it grand?"

Great choice for the title track, and it'll probably have you singing things for days that make your co-workers wonder what you've been smoking.

"Bummer" is a tune that I find confusing even for Sparks! It's about a group gathered to describe how they feel about the sudden passing of a mutual acquaintance. Those speaking "prattle on" and even the dearly departed's widow yawns. He finds it a bummer that those who didn't really know the deceased think they can sum up a life in just a phrase.

That's it! That's all I got for this one. If you can figure it out further, please let me know.

The track I've found most toe-tappingly appropriate for dozens of insulting occasions is "I Wish You Were Fun". "In every other way I find you amazing but one. I wish you were fun."

Someone who isn't fun to be around and claims that their favorite color is brown. Well, you might expect that they're un-fun. I've found myself humming this tune for weeks on end!

How about some irreverence? Yes'm, we got that too! Track 11 pretty well fits that bill with "So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was the Play?". Obviously there would be a specific response from Mrs. Lincoln, but the bigger question is of what lies beneath it all. Perhaps too deep for me to dissect here.

Maybe "When You're a French Director" hits awfully close to the raging spate of sexual harassment claims running amok and piling on over and over again. "Women say 'Oui', they long to be top of the bill. Oh well." As long as "…every scene must be obscure as hell."

In a potential turning of the tables, "The Amazing Mr. Repeat" is about a guy the local girls all love, for the amazing Mr. Repeat is at your service again! "Might be dawn, it might be noon. It might be, God forbid, next June."

"There's ecstasy on every face of every girl in our whole place. No waiting to reload at all. No waiting for that protocol." There's the reason The Amazing Mr. Repeat is in such demand!

Next track, please…

"A Little Bit Like Fun" is sure to rankle the Sparks "repeated lyrics" detractors. A short, fairly limited cut where the content of the verses includes "Isn't this a little bit like fun." "Isn't this a little bit like joy." "Isn't this a little bit like love." And that's about it. 3:57 of that dialogue.

The classics are notoriously violent tales of the way things might have been back when they were originally written. True of not, "Life with the MacBeths" paints a relatively unflattering picture of the family and a fairly clear warning to those who would seek power only for the sake of having power. Blood, ambition, depths unseen…

"Ambition leads to murder. A royal reign of terror." With each murder, their ratings soar.

Finally, the track that appears only on the Japanese release of Hippopotamus. I really can't adequately describe the tune other than saying that the author points out to SOMEone that SOMEone has earned the right to be a dick. Later in the track, however, it is also pointed out that "You've got to want to be a dick."

It's a very cool song and one that I HAD to dedicate to my buddy in NYC who replied by claiming that he had to head out to work where he would practice his new found right. I don't know if he actually practiced his dickiness or not. What I DO know is that his slightly later response was "Hippopotamus is a GREAT album!"

He's absolutely right. I mean, he's not THAT much of a dick!

In the event you're interested in the personnel who went about the creation of Hippopotamus, here they are:
Russell Mael – vocals, engineering, mixing
Ron Mael – keyboards, programming, orchestrations, mixing
Dean Menta – guitars
Steven Nistor – drums
Leos Carax – vocals and accordion on "When You're a French Director"
Rebecca Sjöwall Рvocals on "Life with the Macbeths"

-Mike Kimmel

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