It’s not every day you get to hear music by any band on our Weird List rendered by a 38-piece orchestra. It’s even more remarkable when that band is Sparks, the quirk-pop duo of Ron and Russell Mael, and even more remarkable when the focus of the event isn’t one of their more symphonic efforts like Lil’ Beethoven but their 1974 glam-rock opus Kimono My House, which featured nary a string section but plenty of fuzzy guitar solos and Russell Mael’s swooping falsetto vocals at their most mock-operatic.
The Mael brothers first gave Kimono My House the orchestral treatment last December in London, and decided to follow up those shows with a similar two-night run in their hometown of Los Angeles. The setting for both performances was the suitably stately Theatre at Ace Hotel, formerly the United Artists movie palace, a spectacularly ornate room with Gothic decorations nearly as elaborate as the music from Kimono My House.
As I usually do these days, I wrote the full review of the show for my day job over at L.A. Weekly. So you can read my full account on their site. Suffice it to say that while the orchestral reimagining of Kimono My House, most of the highlights (for me, anyway) came in the show’s second half, when they played an assortment of songs spanning Sparks’ amazing four-decade catalog. And at least one of those highlights involved a monkey. (And no, I’m not referring to Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos. Although he did insert himself into the proceedings. I’m still not sure how I feel about that Sparks/Franz collab.)
Have you ever watched a Rasputina video and thought to yourself, “This is cool and all, but I’d be way more into it if Melora was playing cello in a full Barney the Purple Dinosaur costume”? Well, now’s your chance to ask her to do it.
Yep, starting this month, Melora Creager is offering to shoot personalized music videos for any Rasputina song. The price tag for each video is $350, which sounds steep until you consider that’s probably how much you paid for that abstract landscape painting you bought at Art Walk after drinking too much Two Buck Chuck. And while that crappy painting doesn’t take requests, Melora does: You can suggest costume elements, give her acting directions (the examples she gives are “extra-sad” and “nerdily seductive”) and even ask her to change the lyrics to better suit your boundless ego (“Andy of the Grotto” has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?). “You cannot dictate what I make,” she explains on her website, “but any suggestion by you, the collector, will inspire me and lend direction to the piece.” Just don’t be the first douchebag to ask her to take her clothes off, OK? This is art, people.
Watch Melora’s infomercial below for more about her Personalized Music Videos© and visit Rasputina’s “Handicraft Shoppe” if you have the scratch to request one. And be sure to check out the sample personalized video she made for her boyfriend Gabe. As you can see, the production values ain’t exactly Bruckheimer, but it’s pretty entertaining nonetheless.
When U.K. songstress Gemma Ray decided to cover a couple of tunes by one of her favorite weird bands (and ours), Sparks, she got a little more than she bargained for. The Sparks boys were so taken with her torchy vocals on two of their songs, “How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall” and “Eaten by the Monster of Love,” they decided to “Sparks-ify” them by adding their own quirky arrangements and production touches. Call it Sparks remixing Gemma Ray covering Sparks. Or something like that. Actually don’t overthink it, just head over to The Quietus, where you can stream both tracks.
Ray also shot a silly but rather awesome video for “How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall,” which recently premiered on NME.com. We must confess to not knowing much about Gemma Ray, but she sure is prettier than Sparks’ Mael brothers (sorry, guys).
The “Gemma Ray Sings Sparks With Sparks” single comes out Feb. 21st on Bronze Rat Records. You can pre-order the 7″ vinyl here.
As for Sparks? They’re still tinkering with their Ingmar Bergman musical. Those crazy kids!
Let’s be clear here: We’re not including Rasputina on TWBITW just because they’re a cello band. Lots of rock bands actually feature cellos (Avett Brothers, Belle & Sebastian, Ra Ra Riot, etc.) and another band, Apocalyptica, even uses the same format as Rasputina (multiple cellos + drum kit) to play something they call “symphonic metal,” which is arguably weirder that what Rasputina has traditionally stood for, i.e. chicks in quasi-Victorian garb doing sort of gothy chamber music.
No, the reason Rasputina rates a spot on The Weird List boils down to one thing: Melora Creager. Over Rasputina’s 15+ year history, she has proven herself time and again to be one of the most fabulously weird, eccentric characters in all of music. Without her unique songwriting style, her quirky obsessions with historical emphera, and her ingenuity for coaxing new sounds out of the cello, Rasputina would be a one-trick pony that wore out its welcome ages ago. Instead, they’ve managed to still sound fresh over five studio albums and various EPs and live discs. (The fact the band’s lineup has evolved even faster than Creager’s increasingly fanciful costumes probably hasn’t hurt, either.)
Rasputina is probably best-known for doing cellified (is that a word? is now!) versions of classic rock songs like “Barracuda” and Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” and they’ve also been known to breathe new life into creepy old folk songs (“Wicked Dickie,” a little dirge about “an old man who had but one cow,” is my personal favorite). Creager even released a limited-edition recording called Ancient Cross-Dressing Songs that features three…well, ancient cross-dressing songs. Like we said, this woman knows her ephemera.
But it’s Creager’s original songs that really make Rasputina stand out. Many of them delve into very specific historical material, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire or the Year Without a Summer; some are based on 19th century pulp fiction (the truly excellent “My Captivity by Savages“) and other esoteric source material; some employ historical figures but are apparently just the product of Creager’s lurid imagination (“Incident in a Medical Clinic,” which casts Mary Todd Lincoln as a fevered madwoman leading an army of blimps…no, really). Other song titles speak for themselves: “Momma Was an Opium Smoker,” “Transylvanian Concubine,” “The Donner Party.” Then there’s “Choose Me for a Champion,” which is based on an Osama Bin Laden speech. Yep, for Creager, pretty much nothing is off-limits.
The best part? Much of Rasputina’s music is actually downright catchy, despite its frequently bizarre subject matter and the fact that most of what you’re hearing is cellos. Okay, the song about Josef Mengele is a bit of a downer, but much of the Rasputina catalog is actually quite beautiful, or rockin’, or often both.
Rasputina’s sixth studio album, Sister Kinderhook, comes out this summer on Creager’s own Filthy Bonnet label. We’re stockpiling absinthe in preparation for a marathon listening session the day it comes out.
Apart from a rather ridiculous clip dating back to their brief stint on Columbia Records in the late ’90s, Rasputina haven’t done much in the way of music videos–which is too bad, because Creager’s doll-like features and steam-punky fashion sense are pretty photogenic. Still, this live clip of a track from the group’s best (IMHO) album, Frustration Plantation, gives you a pretty good idea of what their all about. We assume she’s running her cello through some kind of guitar pedal to get that effect, but however she’s doing it, it totally makes us want to rock out–in a top-hatted, Victorian sort of way. Maybe snort a line of snuff off a chorus girl’s bloomers?
Some bands, when you first encounter them, might seem a bit quirky, but they don’t strike you as especially weird. Then you find out they’ve been at this for 40 years—and during that time, they’ve gone from everything to glam-rock to disco to New Wave to chamber-pop to (no joke) Swedish radio musicals. Oh, and one of the guys favors creepy Hitler/John Waters mustaches.
Sparks was started in 1968—1968!—by a pair of brothers from L.A. named Ron and Russell Mael. Originally calling themselves Halfnelson, they signed to Todd Rundgren’s Bearsville record label, changed their name to Sparks, and put out a couple of albums of eccentric but unremarkable, Pink Floyd-influenced psychedelic rock. Their first big break came after they parted ways with Bearsville, relocated to London, and got involved in the glam-rock scene. Their two 1974 albums, Kimono My House and Propaganda, were big hits in the U.K., even landing the band on Top of the Pops. Their music from this era was sort of a weird mix of Roxy Music, T. Rex and bubblegum pop, and seemed to anticipate the rise of New Wave.
By the time the rest of the rock world had caught up to Sparks, the Mael brothers had moved on, teaming up with disco/electronica pioneer Giorgio Moroder for their synth-heavy 1979 album, No. 1 in Heaven. The band continued to explore various synth-pop and New Wave styles for the next decade, scoring their first U.S. hit in 1983 with “Cool Places,” a song they recorded with one of their biggest American fans, Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s.
After a late ’80s/early ’90s hiatus, the band resurfaced in 1994 with Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins. Although not a commercial success—except, for some reason, in Germany—it was one of the most well-reviewed albums of Sparks’ career and was instrumental in establishing the Mael brothers as icons of campy, outsidery pop music. Ron, the principal lyricist, was writing increasingly eccentric and sometimes flat-out goofy songs like “(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing” and “Now That I Own the BBC”—both of which kind of sound like send-ups of the Pet Shop Boys, except that the Pet Shop Boys actually stole most of their ideas from Sparks in the first place.
Since then, Sparks have released an album of alternate versions of their own songs (called, appropriately, Plagiarism, and featuring cameos from Mike Patton, Erasure and Jimmy Sommerville), an experimental symphonic album called Lil’ Beethoven, a satirical concept album about modern romance called Hello Young Lovers, and this year, a radio musical commissioned by Swedish National Radio called The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. Clearly, these guys will try pretty much anything. In 2008, they even performed all 21 of their albums on consecutive nights in London (Ingmar Bergman was album #22).
Taken individually, any one Sparks song—or even any single album—isn’t that weird. With this band, it’s more of a cumulative effect thing. Still, much of the material on 2006’s outstanding Hello Young Lovers stands as some of the weirdest stuff they’ve ever recorded—and how many bands can claim to be out-weirding themselves 38 years into their career? To quote the song featured in the video below, “Screw the past!”
Most people, when they think of Christian rock, probably think of the most bland, boring bands imaginable–groups like Jars of Clay or Casting Crowns or even (shudder) Creed. At best, they might try to claim that U2 qualifies as a Christian band, just because most of the members go to church and Bono mentions Jesus every once in awhile. But it turns out, there are actually a lot of interesting, creative and often downright wacky groups out there trying to spread the Good News through music. And none of them are more wacky or creative than Danielson.
Started by New Jersey kid Daniel Smith as a college thesis project, the group originally called Danielson Famile (pronounced and sometimes mispelled “Danielson Family”) first got some attention with their first album for Tooth & Nail Records in 1997. Called “Tell Another Joke on the Old Choppin’ Block,” the record stood out for its sunny, occasionally spastic, call-and-response chamber-pop, and Smith’s pipsqueak vocals, which kind of sounded like a cross between Tim DeLaughter (Polyphonic Spree) and Elmo (Sesame Street). Live, the band stood out even more: they usually performed in matching nurses uniforms (which, Smith explained, served as a “visual reminder of the healing taking place”). Later, under the name Br. Danielson, Smith took to appearing onstage in a nine-foot fruit tree costume. Apparently, there’s some Christian symbolism behind it, although it’s kind of lost on us godless heathens here at TWBITW, who just find it endlessly, awesomely hilarious.
It’s been a few years since Danielson released any new material, although they’ve kept busy with a two-CD retrospective and starring in their own documentary. They returned to the studio recently to record a new 7″ featuring a song called “Moment Soakers”; it’s due out November 17, but in the meantime, you can watch a making-of video on the band’s website.
This song and video aren’t Danielson’s weirdest by a long shot, but it gives you a pretty good sense of what they’re all about…and it’s too fantastic not to include.