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Weird Live Review: Sparks

Sparks at the Ace Hotel

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.)

Weird of the Day: Portsmouth Sinfonia, “Also sprach Zarathustra”

Portsmouth Sinfonia

What happens when you tackle the classical music canon with all the enthusiasm and rank amateurism of a high school garage-punk band? You get Portsmouth Sinfonia, a classical ensemble active in the ’70s that butchered reinterpreted everything from the William Tell Overture to the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”

Originally made up of students from the Portsmouth School of Art, all of whom were either total beginners or trained musicians who had switched instruments, the project was conceived as a kidding-but-not-really experiment by a teacher/composer named Gavin Bryars. Bryars wanted to see if it was possible for novice musicians to play clumsy approximations of familiar classical pieces that would still be recognizable to audiences. Based on this version of Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra,” better known now as the theme music to 2001: A Space Odyssey, I’d say the experiment was a raging success.

Ironically, as members of the Sinfonia gradually got better at their instruments, the public lost interest, and the project disbanded in 1979. They’ve been back in the news this year because this marks the 40th anniversary of their legendary performance at the Royal Albert Hall (yes, they got so popular at one point that they played the Royal Albert Hall—that kinda sticks in your craw, doesn’t it, trained classical musicians?). We found them by way of an article on Cracked.com called “7 Bizarre Music Experiments That Went Shockingly Wrong” that also called out several Weird List bands, including Stalaggh/Gulaggh, Hatebeak and Matmos. I don’t think any of these experiments went “shockingly wrong,” per se—more like their creators set out to do stuff that would make people go, “That’s not right.”

Bonus fun fact: For awhile, Portsmouth Sinfonia counted Brian Eno and minimalist composer Michael Nyman among its members. In the right (or wrong?) context, we are all amateurs.

a.P.A.t.T.

a.P.A.t.T.

This week’s weird band was suggested by an excellently named reader called Adam Whybray. He describes a.P.A.t.T. as sounding “a bit like a glitchy Mr. Bungle cult that formed down the pub.” And while that’s probably as good a description as any of these cheeky Liverpudlians (although it doesn’t contain the word “Liverpudlian,” which is one of those words you should use every chance you get), it really only scratches the surface of what this avant-pop art-school project has achieved in its 15-odd years of existence.

a.P.A.t.T. (what does it stand for? how do you pronounce it? who knows? who cares?) formed in Liverpool in 1997 or 1998. Their early goal, according to their Wikipedia page (which the band links to from their official site, so let’s assume it’s semi-accurate), was to “make, find, imagine, and create ‘secret music,'” by which they seemed to mean music that abandoned traditional song structures and instrumentation. You can hear some of the band’s early stuff on Welcome to a​.​P​.​A​.​t​.​T. Island – A collection of earlies, which veers sharply between abstract, ambient noise and bursts of spastic, genre-hopping art-pop that reveals some of those Mr. Bungle influences that Adam picked up, as well as an even more direct early influence (and another favorite of ours around here), Cardiacs.

By 2005 or so, the band’s music had become even harder to categorize. On the Fre(e.P), they started doing Girl Talk-like mashups, mixing recognizable pop and classic rock samples with trip-hop beats and trashy club rap, but doing it in a style meant more to be unsettling than party-starting. Check the amazing “Megamix Part 1” for a taste of what happens when you cram the Jackson 5, Coolio, Portishead and “What a Day for a Daydream” into the same track.

Meanwhile, they were also developing a live soundtrack for the silent-film-era vampire classic, Nosferatu, complete with strings. Because hey, why not?

In 2008, they reinvented themselves yet again, transforming into a Zappa-like prog/jazz/metal/psych-rock orchestra on the epic, 27-track Black & White Mass. Most recently, they released Paul the Record, a split album with a band called Peepholes, then decided to embrace the “playlist on shuffle” mentality of our modern age with Ogadimma, a 14-track set on which no two songs are done in the same style. They’ve also shot videos for all 14 songs; taken collectively, they’re pretty amazing. Here they are, for example, in full-on Prince-meets-Of-Montreal mode:

Now try to remember, as you watch this next video, that this is the same band:

They also cite Ween as one of their influences, which honestly didn’t make sense to me until I heard the casual, tongue-in-cheek virtuosity of the Ogadimma stuff: “Oh, you want to hear us do some ’80s synth-pop? Sure, here you go. No big whoop.” (Among their other listed influences: The Residents, Duran Duran, Captain Beefheart, John Zorn, Slayer, Claude Debussy, ABBA, and The Beatles. Much like a.P.A.t.T.’s actual music, this list simultaneously makes no sense and all the sense in the world.)

You’ll notice up until now that I haven’t mentioned any of a.P.A.t.T.’s members by name. That’s because, quite frankly, I have no idea who these people are. a.P.A.t.T don’t perform wearing masks or anything, but they do (mostly) stick to an all-white costume palette that seems to help them maintain a semi-anonymous quality. That plus, let’s be honest here, a.P.A.t.T. is not the world’s most Google-friendly band name. According to their Wikipedia page, their core members go by the names General MIDI, Field Marshall Stack, Dorothy Wave, Master Fader and The Researcher, but that’s all I know.

Oh, did I mention that they sometimes perform site-specific works as a full fucking orchestra? Well, they do. If you want to hear them performing John Zorn and Steve Reich compositions, buy this.

We’ll wrap this post up with a clip of a.P.A.t.T’s live show (non-orchestra version), which looks like jolly good fun. That lady keyboard player (Dorothy Wave, we presume) has sure got some sick dance moves.

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