I'm the last person in the world who should be reviewing albums. Not because I don't have any opinions or anything to say, but because no matter how much I try, I can't seem to synchronize my musical tastes with those of the mass market. But maybe that's the art of the record reviewer… persuading the reader that what they say matters, where I am happy to say that my musical opinions are entirely unimportant. My interest in reviewing therefore stems from production issues, technical issues, and how to get music across from creator to audience.
I find myself writing about this particular album because a) my eyes chanced on the press release in my over-stuffed e-mail inbox, and b) it's a live album. A live album? In 2013? What's the point of that? Everyone knows that the golden age of live albums ended around 1980 or so due to bands losing the ability to play their instruments and due to the public losing faith in how live a 'live' album actually was.
Also, in an ironic twist, the use of highly-skilled session musicians in live performances meant that shows became more of an industrial process rather than a unique musical event. Yes it can be exciting to go to a live show surrounded by a pumped-up crowd, the artist up there on the big screens, the lighting and pyrotechnic effects. But musically the result is often little different from a studio album. Why duplicate material you already have in your collection?
The type of performance that does however work well as a live recording is the 'unplugged' version of an artist's or band's work. Congratulations to whoever thought of and named the concept.
And this indeed is what we have here, in essence. If you know Sparks and their work over the decades, you will be familiar with their production in the style of a quirky rock band, and their electronically-themed recordings influenced by Georgio Moroder.
The title of Sparks' recent tour of Europe is Two Hands One Mouth. The two hands refer to the keyboard playing of Ron Mael (he's the funny looking one) and the voice of brother Russell Mael (the other funny looking one). The look of Sparks is their gimmick – Ron is silent, still, sober-suited with slicked-back hair. Russell is loud, lively, gaudy in dress and behavior. Whether they are like that in real life, who knows? But it brought them attention, and now their audience expects it.
Two hands one keyboard
I mentioned earlier that live albums are often 'studio enhanced'. Originally this might have been done to correct the odd mistake. But when the technology is available, the temptation is there to use it more and more. And where audiences used to expect musicians on stage to play their instruments, using a backing track or sequenced instruments is now accepted.
So it might be expected that Sparks' performance is so enhanced. But in fact their intention, according to the press release, was to perform without “the safety net of a band or computers”. And indeed this does seem to be so. Instrumentally all that is heard is Ron's 'Ronald' keyboard. I suspect it is a Roland, but 'Ronald' is what the logo declares to the world.
Keyboards are clever these days. In fact they have been pretty clever since the Korg M1, and I myself have been responsible for a few rather-less-then-live performances in my time. So I expected Ron to take full advantage of the many sound textures that are available, the potential of layering, and of course why not add a little bit of sequencing too? Where's the harm? But it turns out that the sound is far more unplugged than I expected. For most of the two discs of this double album (well, 1.3x album – the second 'encore' disc is only 20 minutes long), Ron uses a piano program, often layered with strings.
For two songs on disc two, Ron uses a synth texture, but it definitely sounds played rather than sequenced. If I could give a grading for unpluggedness, this would get 10/10. (For the pernickety – of course the keyboard is plugged in, it's the concept of performing with minimal aids that I'm talking about.)
Fullness of sound
Let me sum up what we have here in the Two Hands One Mouth tour…
- A keyboard
It looks pretty thin on paper, so how do you turn it into a whole evening's entertainment, and then a live album?
Well firstly we have to recognize that Sparks are accomplished and experienced performers. There's nothing like performing, performing and performing to give you the stagecraft you need to satisfy an audience. Take any other two talented musicians who had only ever worked in the studio and the result would be a gigantic FAIL. Or someone would have suggested more input from the lighting and pyros.
But still, a single keyboard and a single voice could come across as rather thin. So whoever designed the sound for this tour has done an excellent job. The keyboard is enhanced with reverb and delay, the voice is richly coated in reverb. For many other purposes, the piling on of such effects would be too much. Here it is necessary, and has been done well.
For the purpose of the album, a lot of room ambience has been captured. Once again, this is necessary to overcome the sparseness of the instrumentation. It's interesting that in the more rhythmic numbers, the clapping of the audience becomes an essential part of the texture. I can't believe that everyone in the audience, in every show of the tour, clapped perfectly in time. But of course it is fully expected that the album will be edited from the best bits.
If you're a Sparks fan, then you'll want to have this album to complete your collection. Unless you're the kind of fan who doesn't count live albums as 'proper' albums, and there are such people.
If you're a performing musician, there's a lot to learn from this album; how two people with a keyboard and a bunch of songs can please an audience.
If sound is your thing, then you probably wouldn't go so far as to think that this is a perfect role-model for what a live album should sound like, but it is a well-executed piece of work, and being able to achieve a sound texture such as this should be within any working engineer's set of skills.
You can buy Two Hands One Mouth from all the usual places of course. But why not buy it direct from Sparks, so they can keep a little more of the profits. Here…
P.S. There have been a number of noteable live albums since the 'golden age'. How about these from the current millennium…?
Jay Z – Unplugged 2001
Radiohead – I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings 2001
Belle & Sebastian – If You're Feeling Sinister: Live at the Barbican 2005
Kraftwerk – Minimum Maximum 2005
The Mars Volta – Scabdates 2005
My Morning Jacket – Okonokos 2005
Wilco – Kicking Television: Live in Chicago
Bill Callahan – Rough Travel For A Rare Thing 2007
Black Lips – Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo 2007
Muse – Haarp 2007
The White Stripes – Under Great White Northern Lights 2007
Future Of The Left – Last Night I Saved Her from Vampires 2008
Tom Waits – Glitter And Doom Live 2008