Review: Two Hands, One Mouth: Live In Europe

Cover of Two Hands, One Mouth
Cover of Two Hands, One Mouth

Who don’t love Sparks?  I suppose the folks who don’t know who Sparks are might not love Sparks, but that’s only because of plum ignorance.  But REST EASY, reader — we’re here to set you straight by reviewing ALL the Sparks records — and not just by one, but TWO (and maybe occasionally MORE!) Die-Hard Sparks Fan Reviewers.  We shall be your guide into the wonderful world of Mael.  Check it out! 

Rev. Syung Myung Me: I got to see Sparks this year!  They played Seattle for the VERY FIRST TIME ever, which is pretty amazing.  And I was THERE.  And it was there that I picked up the VERY FIRST Sparks live album, Two Hands One Mouth: Live in Europe.  It’d been out for about a week or two beforehand, but I didn’t want to be spoiled.  See, like Plagiarism, this is another re-imagining of their music — everything stripped down to just Russell singing, Ron playing piano, and no computers, backing tracks, sequencers or anything like that.  Pretty much like it says in the title of the tour.  (Though, technically, it should be four hands two mouths, as Ron did speak some and Russell filled in on keys briefly.  And well, even if that hadn’t happened, Ron didn’t have his mouth surgically removed, nor did Russell lose his hands.)

So how did it turn out?  Amazingly.  One of the problems with some of the early Sparks albums is that in the denseness of the arrangements, the lyrics can get buried.  On this album, though, they’re taking center stage — you can hear all of the wittiness and cleverness that Ron puts into his words.

The songs themselves can also stand up to such sparse arrangements.  That’s truly the test of an excellent song — if it can be stripped down, removing any bells and whistles from the recording, and is still as compelling (if not more so), there you go.  You’ve made something truly amazing.  Of course, it shouldn’t surprise anyone here that Ron Mael’s got a whole pile of amazing songs here on two CDs.  (Well, one and a quarter; the second disc is only 20 minutes.)

The choice of songs is great, too — the only downside to the CD is that on the US leg of the tour, they added “Angst in My Pants” to the set, and that song doesn’t appear here, seeing as it was recorded in Europe. But it’s a great selection, and I think the entire set is represented here — I’ve been wracking my brain and I don’t think it’s missing any non-”Angst” songs that I saw live.  A special treat, too, is “Singing in the Shower”, a non-album single they did with Les Rita Mitsuko.  Not to mention that I never really realized how PRETTY “Number One Song In Heaven” is — but in this arrangement, it’s absolutely gorgeous.

Would this album be a good introduction to Sparks?  That, I’ve been going back and forth on.  Sparks are a phenomenal live band (which I knew before I got to see them from the live DVDs they’ve put out), but I wonder, seeing as the arrangements are so different.  This album isn’t like anything else they’ve put out… but, well, that goes for a LOT of Sparks albums.  Most albums they’ve done aren’t like anything else they’ve done.  That’s part of the fun of Sparks.  I think I’d lean on the side of “you could do worse” — particularly as it seems that one of the things that hook most Sparks fans are the lyrics, and they’re on full display here.  I dig it.  And I dig Sparks.  And I’m hoping they play Seattle again soon, because I will SO be there.  Even if it’s an all Interior Design show.

Ron and Russell; two hands, one mouth
Ron and Russell; two hands, one mouth (Photo credit: matthew_in_ham)

Aila:  In some ways it’s strange that Two Hands, One Mouth is the very first live album by Sparks. This is, after all, a band that has been performing for over 30 years. It’s also a band that doesn’t have a history of releasing extraneous material, in fact almost everything they’ve put out has been essential to a real fan. There has never been a glut of “special edition” albums or endless anthologies that offer little new, which might help explain the hitherto lack of live albums. There are already a few live dvds that capture typical Sparks performances of the past. This album is something different, it offers a fresh approach to a rich musical history, and it is essential for anyone who loves this band.

The engine powering Sparks’ successfully creative longevity is the Mael brothers – Ron Mael being the immensely talented songwriter, composer and keyboardist, and Russell Mael the extraordinarily gifted singer. So the title of this album makes sense, Sparks has always been about Ron’s fingers and Russell’s mouth. Which isn’t to say that previous additional band members haven’t contributed anything, but Sparks is essentially a duo. While the idea of playing stripped-down versions of a band’s repertoire isn’t exactly new, the Sparks version is lacking in the pretentious overtones of many previous offerings. This isn’t Sparks Unplugged by any means – it is just one instrument and one vocal, yet it’s remarkably powerful in many places. I will admit kind of wishing there had been a rhythm section on perhaps two tracks, “At Home At Work At Play” and “Good Morning,” but on most I can’t say I missed anything. The version of “Sherlock Holmes” presented here is actually better than the original, and “Under The Table With Her” is arguably so. “The Number One Song In Heaven” and “Beat The Clock” are also done in a very engaging way, when Ron switches from the piano and strings keyboard sounds into a more electro synth sound (while still remaining sequencer-free – that is, it’s still played entirely live). The title track, the only new song on the album, is a fine closing number with the usual inventive lyrics and compelling melodies, although I’m not sure it would stand out as anything too special were it a regular track on a studio album. And there are a couple of moments that don’t work quite as well to be honest – I found the selection from The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman to be a bit of a bore, and I couldn’t really think of any reason to include “The Wedding Of Jacqueline Kennedy To Russell Mael” except that it was short and very easy to perform in this context. As with most of my Sparks criticism, these are pretty minor quibbles. For the most part, this album is pure enjoyment. Even if you ignore the live element and look at it as a collection of re-worked Sparks tracks, I think this works better than their previous attempt, Plagiarism.

While this is a very good album and a must-have for any Sparks fan, Two Hands, One Mouth is an even better advertisement for the band’s live shows. This is what they are capable of without any sort of backing band, and that says a lot. I was able to see them twice on this tour, it was almost identical musically to the album (they omitted “Hospitality On Parade,” which was a shame because I enjoyed this version, but added “Angst In My Pants”) and it was of course fantastic. They are now getting ready for a sequel tour, The Revenge Of Two Hands, One Mouth, I hope to go to at least one of those shows and I would certainly recommend the same to anyone else. It’s easy to see why they like touring in this format, it has to be very low overhead and hassle-free in terms of traveling and arranging the shows, and it probably allows them to play places that wouldn’t be financially feasible under normal circumstances. The recent US portion was their first stateside tour in decades, for instance. I do hope their next group of shows will include a full band (or at least some kind of rhythm section) because that’s also a great experience, but I’m not sure how useful that would have been as a live album, as they pretty much sound dead-on like the original records when they play that way. As a live album, Two Hands, One Mouth is something special. Sparks have rarely done anything in a predictable way, but it’s almost always great, and this is no exception.

Rich: Live albums are typically viewed as filler in a discography. For every Live at Leeds, there’s a dozen or more Who’s Lasts—desperate attempts to shove more “product” down the overstuffed maw of a hardcore fan base, glutted on Greatest Hits and archival collections. In this way, Sparks are the odd band out—but this is nothing new. Over a career spanning 22 studio albums and over forty years, Sparks have never released a live album. In fact, as an avid live album fan and bootleg collector, it’s always frustrated me how precious little live documentation of Sparks exists. A tiny handful of live bootlegs from their commercial peaks and three very different live DVDs, but no official live recording. Until now.

Two Hands One Mouth: Live in Europe captures Sparks distilled down to their essence: Ron Mael’s keyboard and Russel Mael’s voice. These are the two constants in a career that’s spanned from proto-Glam to proto-Punk, from AM Pop to Synthpop, from New Wave to Eurodisco, and from minimalist Chamber Pop to radio theatre. It’s Sparks as precious few have heard them before—unless you were lucky enough to catch the European tour in person. Eerily enough, a few months before the announcement of the Two Hands One Mouth tour, I had dreamed Sparks decided to tour in a similar duo configuration, only instead of the fancy electronic keyboard Ron used on tour, I dreamed of them touring with a full-size grand piano. The reality proves more practical, I suppose.

Though, of course, stripped down, the sound and songs are identifiable Sparks. Ron’s idiosyncratic melodies and lyrics get to take center stage, not having to compete with dance beats, multi-tracked chorus effects, or other band members. For someone like me who’s always loved to chew on some of the amazing turns of phrase in the lyrics, Two Hands One Mouth is a godsend. Still, if you crave bombast, the album is mixed like a rock record. There’s enough depth in the keys to fill your ears. Ron occasionally layers synth strings or choral effects on his keyboard, but everything is played live, until the arpeggiator is turned on during the encore. Russell is on point too, his dramatic falsetto barely touched by age.

The only time it doesn’t really work is during “My Baby’s Taking Me Home,” off Lil’ Beethoven. The track was an exercise in near minimalism from the start, and stripping it of its layered vocals causes the song to almost collapse in on itself when presented on the disc. When I saw Sparks perform it on the American tour, after the album’s release, I didn’t mind it so much as the audience filled in the missing vocal parts. Perhaps the audience wasn’t miked at that performance. “Dick Around” also falls a little short, with some of the song’s best moments cut out, stripping it to a mere 2:45 of it’s epic 6:45 length. Perhaps Ron just couldn’t play by hand fast enough.

These two missteps are the only flaws in an amazing live document. My favorite live albums are the ones where the band doesn’t just do a rote, note-for-note recitation of the album, but changes the arrangements, engages the audience, and puts on a show. Make no mistake, even as a duo—even on a live recording—Sparks put on a show. For Sparks fans Two Hands One Mouth: Live in Europe is a must have. It’s a new look into classic songs that will make any fan smile. Hopefully, there will be a companion release for the Revenge of Two Hands One Mouth tour.

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