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Sam Sparro – Complex or Confused? (Part II of II)

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(If you haven’t read last week’s post, “Sam Sparro – Complex or Confused? Part I of II,” click here to backtrack to it before reading Part II below).

First let me start by apologizing for taking so long to get you guys Part II of the Sam Sparro story.

Frankly, I blame the drugs.

(And Hillary Clinton).

That being said, buckle up for the longest post of all time. But I’m throwing in links to all the songs, as well as a few pictures to make up for it. Okay, here we go………

So I realize that giving up Sparro’s excellent first single, “Black and Gold,” as an introduction to his music is a little like having sex on the first date — I gave up the goods without making you work for them. But as is often the case after people have sex on the first date, I wasn’t merely placated or satisfied by hearing “Black and Gold,” rather my appetite was whetted, and I was left wanting more. (Um, more Sam Sparro, that is). If anything, “Black and Gold” succeeded in roping me into the house of mirrors that is Sam Sparro. Now, I was trapped.

But how does the rest of his first album hold up in comparison to its lead single? Does it pale or do the other tracks back it up? Exactly what kind of music does this kid make anyway? And what of the God references? Was “Black and Gold” a one shot deal that just happened to be about Sparro’s search for God? Or would I discover the world’s first “Electro-soul spoof-disco-pop mixed with religious-funk-house” album, with lyrics wrought with religious references and questions at every turn? Because while I like to consider myself as having an eclectic and wide-ranging musical taste — and with apologies to the elder Mr. Falson — Christian Rock just isn’t among my preferred genres, nor do I plan on making it one.

Well the truth is, Sparro’s self-titled album is, not surprisingly, much like he is — it’s a true reflection of himself. Not an exact reflection, that isn’t what I mean. But an honest reflection, a real one. Shrouded in mixed signals yet entirely open to interpretation. Questioning, yes, but only in his authoritative and ever-urgent voice. Bouncing from one genre to another, with only ambiguous connections in between. Serious and introspective in one moment, then bubbly and ridiculous in the next. A God-fearing man of faith who also happens to smoke mad weed. Maybe. Who hides his pain behind fun, friendly, and sometimes silly dance tracks. In other words, Sam Sparro the album and Sam Sparro the man are both, well…..consistently inconsistent. Complex and confusing. Unsurprisingly surprising. (Now how’s that for confusion?)

But that isn’t to say there’s no meat left on the album’s bones after “Black and Gold.” True, it is quite easily the best track on Sparro’s album — I’ll tell you that right up front. But that’s largely due to its accessibility. The track just somehow works, and you don’t even have to think about why. And though three different listeners might put “Black and Gold” in three different genres of music, none of the three would find themselves saying, “What the fuck am I listening to?”

While they might still be good, the same cannot necessarily be said for the rest of the tracks on Sparro’s album. The only constant variable (yeah, I just wrote that on purpose) on the album is its production value: extremely high. Every single track, no matter how good or bad, and regardless of the genre, is well done by Sparro and his production partner, Jesse Rogg (along with some help from Richard X and Paul Epworth). Given how many different styles Sparro covers, this is really an impressive feat of knob turning and button pushing. Plus, the kid can really write. So let’s start with some stuff I liked.Photo by Alex Lake

Sam Sparro opens with (what else?) a track called “Too Many Questions,” a funky mash-up of Kraftwerk-esque electronic sounds, a thumping beat with a Bootsy Collins baseline, and Jamiroquai keys. And of course, too many goddamn questions in that strong, but slightly nasal voice of hiss. It’s almost as if Sparro is preparing us for what’s to come:

All I have is too many questions / Is there something someone forgot to mention to me? / But I walk on without hesitation to my unknown own destination / With a music-like syncopation / And explore my own imagination.

Interestingly, however, while it sounds to me like Sparro is still wondering about his life, his death, and his destiny, unlike on “Black and Gold” he’s no longer scared of what he might find out. Instead, he’s meeting his “maker” head-on. Though he does ask pleadingly, Why do old habits die so hard God knows I try and try… But which habits is Sparro referring to? His attempts to find God? His homosexuality? His weed smoking? (More on that one later). Whatever the case may be, Sparro sure isn’t sharing. At least not overtly. Yet the scariest part about “Too Many Questions” has nothing to do with Gods, Gays, or weed. It’s the realization just one song into the album that Sam Sparro sounds a lot like Stevie Wonder.

Woah.

“Too Many Questions”

But before you can even begin to wrap your head around what you think you’re hearing, Sparro hits you with “21st Century Life,” an uptempo Abba-meets-electro style discofest with a horn section thrown in for good measure, which I actually kind of dig. It also prominently features the familiar “double clap” sample from Patrice Rushen’s 1982 hit “Forget Me Nots.” (You might also recognize the sample from Will Smith’s “Men In Black” theme song, which pretty much ganked Rushen’s entire beat, not just the hand claps). But Sparro can’t help but throw a monkey wrench into an otherwise simple song about growing up: Now I’m not a little boy, I’m in the 21st Century / Well you might think we’ve come a really long way, but there’s still no equality / I watch the news on my computer screen, talk about buying my weed out of a vending machine / You tell me I’m free, but how can I be when you’re always watching me on the CCTV?

I understand the lack of equality bit — it is the 21st century and there is still a shameful amount of inequality everywhere we turn, especially for a gay man in America. But what’s this about vending machine weed from a prospective God guy? The one who feels he’s not free and always being watched? (And who’s watching exactly? Is it God again? Or has Sparro simply spent too much time in London?) This obviously doesn’t exactly add up neatly, so maybe Sparro’s really not so worried about his religious beliefs after all. And either way, you’re still looking at a fun song, as long as you don’t try to dissect it for meaning.

“21st Century Life”

Significantly better, however, is “Sick,” a straight up (well, maybe not so straight, but still…) 80s dance banger, with a cleverly familiar-sounding synthy hook and the requisite dance floor-friendly 80s-era drums. Seriously, if you like 80s music you’ll love this track. And if you don’t, you’ll hate it. Because it sounds as if it came out in 1987. But the chorus is what elevates the song to potentially anthemic heights: It’s a sick sick world, I’ll be your medicine / Come on take me take me, I’ll make you feel better. And Sparro is damn convincing too. You don’t know what Sparro wants you to take exactly, but you sure as hell want to find out.

Yet it’s lines like, Darlin’ rest your head, I’ll make you a believer…(in what?) or, Make sure you take me with you when you go into the unknown…(who’s me? Sparro? And uhh, which unknown is this?) that leave me wondering what Sparro’s talking about, despite the fact that my head still just won’t stop swiveling to that beat. I can’t help but wonder if he’s talking about himself and his music, or Jesus and the Church. In other words, who, or what is “The Medicine?” Of course the thing is, I’m not entirely convinced Sparro himself knows either. I think there’s a lot of stuff bouncing around in his head, and it doesn’t always come out organized or motivated by one particular idea, but by a lifetime of feelings and emotions.

“Sick”

Similarly well written and well done, is “Pocket,” a very rich sounding and more downtempo track that prominently showcases some of Sparro’s vocal prowess and strong song-writing abilities. (He can clearly write seriously when he wants to). “Pocket” is about friendship and loyalty, and, unfortunately, about keeping your guard up when it comes to maintaining friendships. Sparro’s bridge and chorus are killer, as is his delivery of both, which will stay with you long after the song has ended:

And if you don’t know that by now then I feel quite sorry for you, I’m sorry for you / Yeah the people that you keep around, well you learn from them and they learn from you…

So keep your friends close, and your enemies in your pocket / Yeah keep your friends close, and your enemies in your pocket / Well you just might start to melt them down and they’ll come around / So keep your friends close and your enemies in you pocket.

Sounds like the perfect new theme song for MTV’s lonely ratings monster, The Hills, if you ask me. Or at least for one of those awkward fade out moments where the two main bitches characters, “accidentally” run into each other at the same club. Yeah, it’d be perfect. (You paying attention to this, Liz Gateley??) In fact, looking back on my own four-year stint in the City of Angels (I never saw any), I wish I’d had Sparro’s “Pocket” in my own while I was there.

“Pocket”

Though perhaps slightly less somber, but still certainly somewhat sad, “Sally,” is an uptempo ode to a stripper, in which Sparro pleads with her to abandon her profession while hinting at how she got there in the first place. Sure, this kind of record been done before (“Perfect Gentleman” by Wyclef Jean comes to mind, as does “Patricia the Stripper” by Chris DeBurg — if your mind is truly as musically warped as mine). But never before has it been so much…..fun?

As it is, “Sally” would be a hit record for Justin Timberlake or maybe even for Robin Thicke — not that either one would ever have the courage to make a song quite like this. But they’d be commended for making a “socially-conscious” track that also moved the masses en radio and dance floor alike. And their live performances (I can only imagine the “Sallys” they would have on stage with them) would be lauded in tour reviews. But alas, Sam Sparro is not JT nor is he Robin Thicke. And not even Debi Mazar’s super-publicist-bitch, the “Shauna Roberts” character from Entourage could change that.

“Sally” is a brilliantly produced bouncy dance track, which sounds like a somewhat unlikely combination of Quincy Jones-produced Michael Jackson (in other words, the good shit), 1980s and 90s Freestyle (an underrated and largely unknown, if not slightly cheesy, brand of dance music/Latin hip hop made popular primarily in New York and Miami through artists like Judy Torres, George Lamond, and Rockell), and modern-era synth-pop. And that’s exactly why you’d never catch Timberlake’s or Thicke’s footprints anywhere near this record. Too much kitsch for them. Fine. But my god that shit works.

Sparro’s lyrics to “Sally” are excellently written and quite catchy — though again the chorus steals the show. Yet given what sometimes seems to be some kind of religious double-speak, it’s hard not to wonder if Sparro’s pleas with Sally to stop stripping are at least in some way form of proselytizing. But I don’t think that’s the case here. Thankfully, the lyrics are largely devoid of any “believer”-type vocabulary, and instead focus on Sparro’s sincere efforts to convince Sally — a girl with both “thick caramel thighs” and “beautiful green eyes,” but also a checkered past with a possibly abusive father (“And I get so red hot mad, thinking about that dirty old man,” Sparro sings forcefully) — to come down off the pole.

Sally why you wanna do that? / I ain’t gonna hurt ‘cha — I ain’t your daddy / Sally you ain’t gotta do that / Need someone to love ya — not like your daddy…..pleads the heavily synth-backed chorus. Conjuring images of Flashdance, Striptease, and Showgirls all rolled into one seedy, smoky, strip-club scene…..big hair, tiny spandex outfits, cheap strobe lights, leering patrons, a scuffed black stage, and an eighteen year-old girl with thirty-eight year-old eyes teetering in Lucite heels atop it.

And whaddya know, a socially-conscious track with a nice message that should not only move the masses, but get ’em singing too. It’s even got a little bit of a “Smooth Criminal” feel to it. And that’s always a good thing.

“Sally”

Photo by LA Splash

But as much as I’d like to leave well enough alone and stop right here (you’d probably like me too, wouldn’t you?), Sam Sparro is far from a perfect album. For each of the songs I’ve written so laudably about above there is an either lame, lousy, or downright ridiculous song to match up with it. Lucky for us, (and him), however, Sparro cops to this reality himself, and doesn’t put up some kind of high-brow indie musician-cum-artist fight (I can’t stand those), so I won’t go into as much detail here.

In the same interview cited in Part I of this article with British music website Noise Makes Enemies, Sparro says, “What actually excites me most about the record are some of the off kilter funk tracks like one called ‘Cling Wrap’ and another called ‘Cut Me Loose’ — they’re just pure ridiculousness.” While I agree they’re ridiculous, I think Sparro leaves out a few others, namely “Recycle It!,” “Cottonmouth,” and “Hot Mess,” which, if it actually had the words “hot” and “mess” in the chorus would have a chance at becoming a hit song based solely on the fact that people seem to really like using that expression.

“Recycle It” is a rather inconsequential track, as it’s more of an interlude than an actual song. It consists of Sparro naming, in a French accent no less, items to be recycled (“aluminum…plastic bottles…sneakers…computer…shoe boxes…” — you get the idea) over a beat-boxed beat. It’s absurd. And clearly it’s meant to be. At least it doesn’t last long.

“Recycle It”

“Cottonmouth,” on the other hand is equally absurd, yet unfortunately I’m afraid it’s clearly much more serious. (Not including the video). In fact, it’s here that Sparro seems to want to trot out his story-telling ability, on a slow motion, almost lazy beat, over which Sparro lazily drawls and slurs, describing smoking what must have been a lot of weed, and then getting “cottonmouth” aka “dry mouth.”

It was just an ordinary afternoon, I was sitting in the park / Trying to forget all of my blues, I want a little somethin’ to spark…..I Forgot my world while I fell awake, didn’t have a single care / Then I noticed somethin’ very wrong, I was so parched I could not sing this song / Cottonmouth, Cottonmouth / You’re so damn dry……I need some H2O, down my throat / I need some H2O, down my throat…..

“Cottonmouth”

This song is in no way fun or funny — as often drug songs are — it just takes seems to take it self too seriously, and is far too deliberate. Nor does it seem to fit in with the rest of Sparro’s album. After the strength, both vocal and subjective, of songs like “Black and Gold” and “Sally,” a track like “Cottonmouth” just doesn’t seem like the Sam Sparro you want to listen to. The same goes for “Clingwrap,” which takes the absurdity to a whole new level. On the surface it’s a fun and simple track more reminiscent of New Edition circa “Mr. Telephone Man” than anything housey or electro, about needing some space in a relationship — You see I went outside just to take a stroll, and when I came back I had ten missed calls…from you. But the chorus literally makes me cringe:

Oh you must’ve thought I was your snack, because you’re sticking to me like clingwrap / Oh you must’ve thought I was your snack, because you’re sticking to me like clingwrap / Scooby do be do be do do….

Seriously?

“Clingwrap”

And it’s a shame because, like every other song on Sam Sparro, the beat — funky, bouncy, with harmonizing horn sections — and overall production is great. It’s just that the lyrics are so silly, it actually impedes the listener from appreciating Sparro’s natural vocal and arranging skills that are otherwise omnipotent. It’s like spoof funk. And operating much on the same “spoof funk” plane is Sparro’s “Cut Me Loose,” which basically steals the intro them from Midnight Star’s classic, “No Parking on the Dancefloor,” and then transitions into a rather bizarre souped-up Techno/Electro amalgamation of elements from Gap Band’s “You Dropped a Bomb On Me” and The Whispers’ “Rock Steady.” (Not too cool). And the faux-funk lyrics…..

When I hear that bass start-a-bumpin’ / Me and my whole body get to jumpin’ / Smack my neck my back and shake my rump and / Just cut it loose (loose!) just cut it loose (hey hey)…..Nothin’ cuts me loose like the music / I cut a rug up all night long and I hear my favorite song / Nothin’ cuts me loose like the music, said cut me loose, just cut me loose…..

Come on, Sam. You’re better than that.

“Cut Me Loose”

And on “Hot Mess,” he is. Mostly. This is the least-worst of the not-so-great songs, if that makes any sense. The song’s got a nice idea: tell girls (or guys) they’re beautiful and amazing the way they are, to eschew the temptation plastic surgery, ignore material things, and what others think. It’s also got a great title, “Hot Mess,” a phrase that it appears every girl I know enjoys using. (It’s also the name of a monthly gay night at The War Room in Seattle. Thanks, Google!) Yet it’s only uttered once throughout the entire track, which is really too bad in my opinion, as Sparro might have had an instant hit on his hands were “hot mess” to appear in the chorus.

Also too bad is that despite its funky opening and Sparro’s excellent falsetto, “Hot Mess” quickly transitions into a mediocre Disco song that wouldn’t have made the cut on Larry Levan’s decks at the Paradise Garage or David Mancuso’s at The Loft. Though I like some of its lyrics — Sparro really can write — the track doesn’t have the same power, force, and urgency that’s found on the majority of the album. Sparro comes on strong in the intro: I know you fancy yourself as a sexy bitch, it’s in the way that you walk / Do you kiss your mother with those expensive lips? But backs off in favor of the good old uplifting chorus: But you need it, don’t cha baby? / No you’re nothin’ without their gazes / They don’t love you, they are strangers / Look how far you have come you’re amazin’, you’re amazin’!

And I really wish he hadn’t done that — a track called “Hot Mess” should have lyrics about sexy bitches and expensive lips, not be a Feel-Good Donna Summer Disco Anthem.

“Hot Mess”

Now you might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned anything about Sparro’s possible attachment to Christianity/Religion/God in a while. That’s not an accident. It’s because he hasn’t either. Sure you can view songs like “Sally,” “Sick,” or “Hot Mess” as positively-messaged and uplifting — songs about right and wrong, helping friends, and learning to love yourself. I do. But the “Overt/Covert” game of pseudo-religious references, though fun, can’t be played all the way through Sam Sparro. And as you can plainly see by some of the songs (think “Cottonmouth”) and some of the lyrics (I know you fancy yourself as a sexy bitch), Sparro ain’t no saint. And I’m cool with that. In fact, I’m happy about it.

I’m glad I can listen to Sam Sparro and just enjoy his album for what it is. A new, fun, and interesting first-effort by a quirk-filled, intriguing artist who seems to do whatever the fuck he wants. And I’m in favor of that. I’m no longer worried that I’m accidentally listening to a quiet Christian musician with a secret right-wing religious agenda, that’s for damn sure. And I’ve learned that while “Black and Gold” really is a damn good song that everyone who hears it seems to get something out of, Sparro’s got plenty of fodder for those who liked what they heard and want to hear more. I’m still amazed at the range of genres Sparro is able to cover more than adequately on his first album, and how well his voice takes to each and every one of them. I love that he’s not afraid to experiment with his music, and maybe even his image. That takes both courage and imagination.

I think what Sparro may find, however, is that the average American listener doesn’t have the courage or imagination, let alone both, to fully appreciate his music and his attitude. In fact, I’m afraid the average American listener doesn’t have the courage or imagination to even give Sparro’s music a chance — forget about fully appreciating it. It’s too gay, it’s too weird, it’s too European, it’s too silly, it’s not popular enough, it’s too 70s, it’s too 80s, it’s too progressive, it’s too…..different. That’s what they’ll say. But I hope I’m wrong. Because I think all that stuff is great. At least it’s clear he’s being appreciated across the pond based on the great success of “Black and Gold,” and hopefully his Sam Sparro album sales will prove equally strong.

So what is Sam Sparro? Is he complex or just confused?

I think I’ll let him answer that — in ten words or less.

“I’m half pensive and serious and half ridiculous and silly,” he says, explaining it all.

Well then. That was easy.

– Jonathan

Sam Sparro’s Official Website

Sam Sparro’s Official MySpace

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2 Responses

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  1. i think you’re over-analysing mate. The song ‘sick’ for instance can very easily be about the music itself. Pop music is rarely deep, and i’ve hear a gazillion songs that sing of ‘making things better’ ‘let me show you how’ yadda yadda yadda -and it’s not really referencing anything. The listener can let it mean whatever they want. But Sparro singing “I’ll make you feel better” could just be about how his music makes u feel.

    I think the dirty old man in “Sally” is probably the old geezer watching the girl strip. BTW, ‘Sally’ is actually about Sam. I read in a Guardian Newspaper interview that he danced at a gay club for a few months.

    Pippin

    May 22, 2008 at 12:56 am

  2. Probably this album will become something like sneakerpimps …at 1st everyone disliked, nowadays u listen to their songs remixes everywhere 😛

    ItalianChick

    July 7, 2008 at 4:06 am


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