Album reviews: Sparks | Magnetic Fields | Arab Strap

Sparks still sound fresh and relevant after 50 years, while Arab Strap open up their digital archive

Sparks: A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip (BMG) ***

Magnetic Fields: Quickies (Nonesuch) ****

Arab Strap: The Summer Has Ended: Tascam Demos 1996/The Frog Tape/Sanitised Broadcasts 99-03 (via Bandcamp) ***

More than 50 years into their fertile fraternal partnership, Sparks are still tackling the language of pop from fresh angles. Musically, we know the score – staccato new wave with baroque flourishes from composer/lyricist Ron Mael, topped with younger brother Russell’s shoot-for-the-moon vocals – but as they proceed with their latest commercial rebirth, Mael Sr once more delights with his capacity to put an unusual lyrical spin on the everyday, from mobile phone culture to environmentalism.

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A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip opens with All That, a relatively standard synth pomp tribute to a long-standing relationship, the line “cheap chairs would be our thrones” a mature take on the sentiments of Lorde’s Royals. But they’re off and running with the sprightly I’m Toast, a breakfast metaphor for realising you are surplus to requirements.

Left Out in the Cold uses the widescreen wintry landscape of Winnipeg as the backdrop to a more dramatic fall from favour, while Pacific Standard Time plays like an excerpt from a musical on life in their native LA.Shifting again from sweeping vista to domestic travails, Lawnmower sketches out a suburban tragedy with a few strokes of the pen. This cautionary tale for our self-isolating times postulates that there is a time to garden, and a time to not garden.

Recent single Self-Effacing is a classic Sparks pen portrait, their equivalent of Michael Marra’s Hermless: “I’m not the guy who says ‘I’m the guy.’” One for the Ages could be the same individual, dreaming of his moment, while the quickfire, tongue-twisting scurry of Existential Threat captures the racing, restless nature of paranoia, once again leaving the listener to catch up with their wit and wordplay.

Over on the eastern seaboard, Stephin Merritt comfortably rivals Sparks for quirky pith. Inspired by the art of the short story, his latest Magnetic Fields album comprises 28 diverse ditties on love, religion, beverages and more, the most epic clocking in at a frankly indulgent two-and-a-half minutes.

The titles alone conjure all sort of possibilities (Kraftwerk in a Blackout, anyone?) but Merritt has a Cole Porteresque way with a rhyming couplet (“gang’/ “dang”, ‘it’s worse than commun-ism, she’s got evil rhythm”) and has no trouble getting to the withering point, deadpanning that “billions laughed and no one cried” on The Day the Politicians Died. But there is also an Ivor Cutler-like fabulism at work, with Merritt practically subsonic on the country torch song I Wish I Had Fangs and a Tail.

Arab Strap have used their lockdown downtime well, making their personal archive of rarities and unreleased material available via Bandcamp on a pay-what-you-can basis. This online car boot sale is probably not the place for the casual listener, being almost relentlessly downbeat with some moments of beauty and fascination. However, fans will find much to titillate in the pile of demos, covers, unreleased instrumentals and a host of live albums, including a request show from 2004 where the band forgot to stipulate that the audience requests had to be Arab Strap songs.

Among numerous exclusive treats, the compilation Sanitised Broadcasts 99-03 comprises mostly previously unaired recordings for radio, but it is the darkest corners of the archive which yield the most intriguing items – two early demo compilations from 1995.

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Highlight of The Frog Tape is the lo-fi post-rock of Coming Down, which sounds like the lost theme to an Oliver Postgate cartoon (musically, anyway) but a fuller portrait of the nascent band can be gleaned from The Summer Has Ended: Tascam Demos 1995 which includes the Falkirk front porch lament I Worked in a Saloon, spirited Sonic Youth-influenced garage strum of Birds and the delicate downer of Soaps Two.


Sean Shibe: Bach Lute Music (Delphian) *****

There’s nothing more soothing than the sweet sound of unaccompanied classical guitar coupled with the logical weave of Bach harmony and counterpoint. Throw guitarist Sean Shibe into the mix and you have a divine threesome worth more than the sum of its parts. Shibe’s nuanced precision explores music considered to be central to Bach’s lute repertoire, though which instruments these pieces were originally intended for remains a matter for debate. Regardless, the playing is exceptional, the E minor Suite and C minor Partita filled with a delicate sensuality suggestive of their stylistic dance origins. (The sleeve notes mistakenly claim Paul McCartney’s Bluebird to have been influenced by the former’s Bourée when it was, in fact, his Blackbird.) Shibe ends with the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E flat, its extended central Fugue a towering highlight from a performer of rare sensibility. Ken Walton


Avishai Cohen: Big Vicious (ECM) ****

Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen’s Big Vicious band embraces jazz, rock, pop, hip-hop, you name it, with palpable relish. He’s joined by guitarist Uzi Ramirez plus Yonatan Albalak doubling on guitar and bass, and bolstered by two drummers, Aviv Cohen and Ziv Ravitz, the latter also live-sampling to loop in with Cohen’s synthesiser, creating an ear-grabbingly trippy sound that maintains warmth as well as authority from Cohen’s big trumpet voice. The music is largely by Cohen and company, with input from the Tel-Aviv producer Rejoicer. Cohen’s magisterial trumpet arrives couched in reverberating guitar bends for the opening Honey Fountain, or glides and dips gracefully through Intent. and there are reggae-ish beats and echoes on Massive Attack’s Teardrop. To flip from the gutsy guitar-led King Kutner to the solemn processional of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is quite a leap, but Cohen and company carry it off with sonorous panache. Jim Gilchrist

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