Digging the new works of Sparks, bar italia and Brandy Clark this month
We also got a fun garagey blast with Olivia Jean’s Raving Ghost, which efficiently gets the job done in under 40 minutes.
The Smashing Pumpkins, meanwhile, released Atum, their “rock opera” overstuffed with 33 songs. Its “plot” can feel incidental, but plenty of songs are heavy or melodic enough to stick. That said, the production isn’t as in-your-face, especially on the rockers, as the material calls for on an album that lasts for 138 minutes.
And, yes, it feels longer than 138 minutes Billy Corgan apparently heeds advice like “Have you thought about editing this down?” as well as he heeds “Going on Sandy Hook denier Alex Jones’ show is a really terrible idea, don’t you think? Seriously, Billy. Don’t do it.”
Rather than the three albums in one from Corgan & Co., we’re looking at the newest albums from rock’s beloved weirdos Sparks, semi-mysterious London indie trio bar italia and Americana standout Brandy Clark.
Now into their second half-century, Sparks remain the artsy outsiders they’ve always been.
The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte is their 25th album, and their first on Island since 1976’s Big Beat.
Album: The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte
Label: Island Records
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
Brothers Ron and Russell Mael grew up in Pacific Palisades, but it just as well could have been London, given that it was the U.K. that embraced them.
They had 13 Top 40 hits there, which is 13 more than they had here, coming closest when “Cool Places” with the Go-Gos’ Jane Wiedlin, peaked at No. 49 in 1983.
But they’ve maintained an audience, last year getting a boost with a well-received documentary (chock full of music biz luminaries as talking heads) The Sparks Brothers, directed by Edgar Wright.
It was good timing, with the Maels being on a creative upswing in recent years, one that continues with The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte.
The insistent title track could have been a joke, but instead it’s more observational and cuts a little deeper than you’d expect from a song that repeats that title as often as it does.
There has always been a theatrical bent to Sparks’ work, one that would seemingly lend itself to a musical, either a jukebox production or one with all-new songs. And indeed they finally did one, a movie musical — 2021’s Annette — for which the brothers wrote the music and co-wrote the story.
You can close your eyes and picture the staging for the jaunty “The Mona Lisa’s Packing, Leaving Tonight” and the modern new wave, probably doomed meet-cute of “You Were Meant For Me”.
There’s something uniquely Sparks in how they take on topics from a unique angle. It’s one thing to write about the utterly inhospitable and unsafe aspects of the world out there in 2023. It’s another to do it in the relentlessly catchy “Nothing is as Good as They Say It Is”, which is sung from the point-of-view of a newborn baby who gets one look at their surroundings and wants to go back into the womb. They give it the unique touch of an alternative to that location: “Thank you both for this special chance/Were I born in the south of France/I would feel less resistant to/Somewhere that just deserves adieu.”
The social commentary is darkly humorous on the staccato “We Go Dancing”, in which the actions of Kim Jong Un are cast as a DJ forcing the moves to his dictatorial tune, regardless of the cost (“Sometimes, I get injured, man, it’s harder than it looks/I just plow on through it, I don’t want no angry looks”).
Humor’s always been in Sparks’ DNA. There’s the sarcastic sway of “When You Leave” in which partygoers will be free to bust out the good music and get wine stains on the carpet once they can get the wet blanket to depart. And “Not That Well Defined” turns that sarcasm into a putdown (“While you’re posing there with Claude Monet/As he finished you he’d proudly say “Now that is art”).
Not that it’s all jokes. The heartfelt tribute “Veronica Lake”, set to burbling Kraftwerkian synths, avoids the obvious tack of making it about the sadness of Lake’s latter years, when work was sparse due to the alcoholism that killed her at 50. Rather, it remembers her World War II move of shedding her trademark peekaboo hairstyle with its voluminous waves because it wasn’t practical for women working in factories while men were fighting overseas.
The Mael brothers’ embrace of synthesizers and keyboards, going back to the ’70s, positioned them as forward-thinking. It makes it easier to connect their modern work to the past, as they’re doing what they did then, just with updated tools.
Those tools can even show off the beating heart underneath the humor and the weirdness, which has kept Sparks resonant all these years. “Escalator” is a romantically hopeful mood piece set to synths.
“It Doesn’t Have to be That Way” winningly evokes pop’s past in lovely fashion (one hears echoes of the pre-disco Bee Gees) to express Sparks’ approach to music.
“Gee That Was Fun” is similarly evocative musically, this time in a bittersweet look at a relationship’s end.
It’s fitting that Sparks are back on Island, the label that released their 1974 breakthrough Kimono My House. Almost 50 years later, they still have their wits and skills intact, with The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte the latest reminder of how and why they’ve lasted as rock’s sharpest, most tuneful weird kids in the back of the class turned eccentric elder statesmen.
As anyone who’s been to restaurants of a certain kind, the appetizer platter is a familiar thing, be it the array of antipasti at Italian spots or the “Oooh, wings, mozz sticks AND potato skins on one plate” order at chain joints.
The debut album from bar italia is like that, only with a sampling of alternative music styles rather than fried and/or marinated snacks.
Artist: bar italia
Album: Tracey Denim
Label: Matador Records
★★★3/4 (3.75/5 stars)
The band has previously operated under a high level of anonymity and a level of songcraft that often read as unfinished with lo-fi trappings and short song lengths.
These days, the trio’s names are known — Jezmi Tarik Fehmi and Sam Fenton, of the duo Double Virgo, along with Nina Cristante. Their debut on Matador doesn’t exactly evoke any walls of sound, but the production is definitely upgraded.
All three members handle vocal chores, with variable moments of effectiveness. When things get pitchy, it’s hard not to picture them having had an appreciation for, say, the Pastels.
Anyone of the age to remember alternative music of the late ’80s into the latter half of the ’90s will be able to play Spot The Influence with Tracey Denim.
“changer” evokes dreampop if, say, Hope Sandoval had duetted with Thurston Moore instead of Jim Reid.
The loud guitars on “Friends” are oh-so-’90s, bringing up too many bands to mention, making it more of a shame that the song peters out.
“my kiss era” puts those Pastels vocals onto what could have been a left-field stoner folk hit played at half speed, until the distorted guitars kick in.
“yes i have eaten so many lemons yes i am so bitte” plays like lost Luscious Jackson at first.
And so it goes: Pavement here, the Breeders there, might pick up some New Order from the back and, oh, here’s a passel of lesser known acts on this shelf.
So, yes, Tracey Denim has its inspirations that’ll be familiar to anyone who worked at an independent record store in the ’90s, the ones that had sections with staff picks and let its employees choose what got played in the store.
It could all be so derivative, but bar italia fully commits to it with the help of, in some cases, more fully realized songs.
“Nurse!” has a nice deadpan groove, before the volume goes up in joy. “changer” traffics niftily in the ethereal moods of pre-Loveless My Bloody Valentine.
“Missus Moraity” practically shimmers in its chorus, a nice feint from when it sounds like it’s going to be more angsty at the start.
Spoke-sung vocals from the trio taking turns on one verse each do the heavy lifting on “punkt,” playing off the guitars that threaten to go off the rails.
“maddington” survives Tarik’s off-key opening vocals (that made me yearn for a vocoder, which never happens) to be an utterly charming, dreamy album closer.
It’s clear bar italia hasn’t substantially altered its DNA. There are still moments where they’re on the wrong side of the fine line between experimental and “Wait. That’s not a demo, but the actual final version?” But the uptick in more fully realized songs and improved sound is enough to make Tracey Denim an engaging listen more often than not.
Brandy Clark is one of those performers who country radio should have embraced. But considering the brotastic wall that keeps a lot of women from getting substantial airplay, it’s as unsurprising as it is disappointing to see Clark get shut out.
It hasn’t kept her from making strong albums, starting with her 2013 debut 12 Stories, which was one of that year’s best.
Artist: Brandy Clark
Album: Brandy Clark
Label: Warner Music
★★★★1/4 (4.25/5 stars)
Clark was a songwriter first (and still is). Her biggest chart successes coming in that arena, where she’s had a hand in hits for the likes of The Band Perry (“Better Dig Two”), Miranda Lambert (“Mama’s Broken Heart”) and Kacey Musgraves (“Follow Your Arrow”).
And that’s continued with her own material, as Clark has worked with various collaborators, rather than let outside writers take the reins.
This time, it’s the seemingly omnipresent Brandi Carlile. With their similar backgrounds in rural Washington and similar sensibilities, Carlile seemed like a good fit as producer. She is.
There’s a chef’s mantra — Keep It Simple. A few quality ingredients, put together with strong technique can yield great results. No need to overdo things.
That’s the type of approach Clark and Carlile take on Brandy Clark. It’s not as if her previous two albums — 2016’s Big Day In a Small Town and 2020’s Your Life is a Record — were over-the-top in their approach. But the new album hearkens back to 12 Stories: Clark’s voice backed by understated, but never not sympathetic and strong, instrumentation.
The songs themselves reflect that, living in a world of heartbreak and doubt. This isn’t another Tonight’s The Night, but it’s also not exactly a party record.
“Not Enough Rocks,” bluesily boosted by Derek Trucks’ slide guitar, sets the tone right off the bat. It’s “Janie’s Got a Gun,” if Janie never got caught and the abuser’s body is never found.
“Buried” is carried by Clark’s vocals, making the anguished resignation of a relationship’s end abundantly clear.
There is an attention to detail with the same care a chef expects from their mise en place. “Northwest” shows off Clark’s affection from the part of the world where she grew up. Its details were helped by a trip from Nashville, where she’s lived for years, back home with co-writer and Jessie Jo Dillon, who’d never been to rural Washington state and thus saw what was familiar to Clark with fresh eyes.
Carlile influenced the song, which was written before she was officially confirmed for the album, having told Clark that she needed to “go back to the Northwest.” She also stressed a need for Clark to be more personal.
“I gave her like 18-24 songs and asked her to pick about a dozen. I liked them all, but I was surprised by some of her choices,” Clark told Billboard. “She told me, ‘I chose the songs that I thought sounded like you wrote them in your bedroom, and not in the writing room.’ And that was a really good reminder for me, because when we all got into music it wasn’t because we needed it to be perfect; it was because it moved us.”
She turns that personal detail into “She Smoked in the House,” about her late grandmother. It’s a musical portrait that brings that woman to life while full of relatable moments. I had a grandmother who was into polka, not country, and she didn’t smoke, but damned if “Wouldn’t throw nothin’ out/She’d cut the mold off cantaloupe and cheese” wouldn’t apply to her, too.
“Dear Insecurity” is about the bothersome presence of body issues in Clark’s life, featuring Carlile as an unplanned vocal partner. Clark had names in mind for the part, but the producer’s scratch vocal was too good to take out.
The permutations of love appear throughout. Clark resurrects the declaration of faithfulness “Come Back to Me,” a tune she’d co-written which appeared on Keith Urban’s 2013 album Fuse, a more personal take on the turf (lyrical, not musical) that Sting attempted on “If You Love Somebody (Set Them Free)”
The soulful “All Over Again” details being stuck in an off-again, on-again cycle.
If The Beatles offered counsel to a friend’s partner to wise up or “You’re Going to Lose That Girl”, Clark basically tells the bad partner that, for the well-being of the friend, that they should “Tell Her You Don’t Love Her.”
The emotion remains, especially when the backing gets more spare as it does on the lovely “Up Above the Clouds (Cecilia’s Song),” a Dillon song that Clark adapted into being about a friend’s niece battling cancer. Likewise for the openly supportive “Take Mine,” the latter built off just Clark’s voice and an electric piano until the strings rise up.
As country as Clark is, there are enough other flavorings that keep it from being the only label that could apply. Even with the backing more spare, it’s never sparse. As with Carlile’s co-production work on Tanya Tucker’s stellar 2019 comeback While I’m Livin’, the sound serves the singer, rather than molding the singer and their POV to the sound.
The eponymous album is the latest project in a busy couple years for Clark. She was one of the co-writers on Ashley McBryde’s terrific 2022 concept album Lindevile. She and long-time co-writer Shane McAnally also wrote the songs for Shucked, a comedy musical which made its Broadway debut this spring, garnering positive reviews and nine Tony nominations.
If anything, one wishes for a bit more of Clark’s wit on the album, even with a focus that’s more personal and less story-based. That doesn’t detract much from the finished product, though. Brandy Clark winds up being another strong effort — her fourth in a run which shows no indications of stopping.
- Picture This: Blondie’s Parallel Lines at 45 - September 26, 2023
- Growing On Me: Permission to Land by The Darkness Turns 20 - September 16, 2023
- Heart and Soul: Sports by Huey Lewis & The News Turns 40 - September 15, 2023