VARIOUS ARTISTS – Kimono My House: 50 Years Later

From the label that brought you 50th Anniversary tribute albums covering Alice Cooper’s classic ‘Killer’, Bowie’s absolutely legendary ‘Ziggy Stardust’, and Budgie’s oft-overlooked ‘Never Turn Your Back On A Friend’, comes something way more…outlandish. Bringing together various acts from the rock and metal underground, ‘Kimono My House: 50 Years Later’ re-imagines the 1974 Sparks album. As you might expect, the results are mixed. As you’ve probably already guessed, very few of the bands have been brave (or should that be foolhardy?) enough to imitate Russ Mael’s legendary falsetto. It remains unclear whether any of the musicians have taken the method route and grown toothbrush moustaches to enhance their involvement. What we have here – somewhat against the odds – is a very interesting record.

Taking a safe and traditional route, art rock band Silvery play ‘Talent Is An Asset’ pretty much verbatim. The guitars are a little louder; the drums are much harder, and this has the effect of making the overall feel of the intro sound like Franz Ferdinand, which is quite fitting since the much loved Scottish band have worked with Sparks in the past. The expected glockenspiel counter melody has now been reduced to a cheaper sounding keyboard but, aside from that, the bandattack the number with a reasonably confident air. This confidence grows even further once the vocal arrives and a full on falsetto takes centre stage. Naturally, it’s not a direct copy of Russel’s performance, but comes with a theatrical bent that helps share the massive love that Silvery have for the original material. As the track progresses, with the familiar melodies augmented by lop-sided backing vocals, massive drones and a fuzzy lead guitar, it’s a solid offering from an act who bill themselves as “Victorian Circus Punk”. A valiant attempt at “a best Russ Mael” is also present throughout The Slightest Bits’ ‘Lost and Found’. Behind a strong vocal, the music plays fairly predictably too, with the volume of the riff just increased. That isn’t to say it’s a bad cover – far from it; those who would prefer something fairly respectful to their heroes will almost certainly find merit here, but it’s safe to say that ‘Kimono/50’ definitely features more interesting re-workings, if that’s what you came for…

In the hands of Josiah, the dark vibes of ‘Here In Heaven’ remain, but the bank of keyboards and fuzz bass are transposed to guitar, whilst a pointed vocal takes on the mantle of something that sounds as if were being shouted in from the studio next door. Less Sparks and more “abrasive tribute to Hawkwind circa 1978”, it becomes a brilliant hybrid of art rock and garage rock, where a busy rhythm facilitates a world of harmonic guitars and angry vibes, peppered by backing vocals on loan from early Roxy Music. It’s still obviously ‘Here In Heaven’ but not as you’ve ever known it, and by the time a huge guitar solo rears up during the coda, it might just be excellent in its own right. Following a bass led intro, Diss & Co steer ‘Barbecutie’ through the wilds of 80s goth with a flat drum sound, moody vocals and a very retro synth taking the reins. It takes all of about forty seconds before this recording – occasionally sounding like Fiction Factory in a sulk; occasionally conveying something more akin to the early Killers through a murky haze – takes its place as one of this album’s very best. Regardless of the source material, this is a superb track, brimming with melody and a lovably retro sound that many have sought to create, but few have managed quite so perfectly.

A definite highlight, Black Helium’s ‘In My Family’ takes a Sparks deep cut and reimagines it as if it were a piece of proto-metal from the late 60s. Overdriven guitar riffs owe more to Blue Cheer, and a world of reverbed vocals – both the spooky lead and raw chorus harmonies – are straight from the darkest corners of freakbeat. It’s the kind of track that could win over an ardent Sparks hater on its own merits; very much sharing an originality that any self-respecting tribute disc should aim to celebrate. Likewise, another voyage into a subgenre of psych achieves something enjoyable when Belsvarjelsen’s ‘Equator’ offers a mix of atonal vocals and ominous melodies. The quieter elements of the recording are steeped in atmosphere despite the off kilter approach, and when rocking out a little more, a blend of haunting vocals and chugging guitars occasionally sounds like a stoner rock act channelling The Flaming Lips. In a brilliant move to ensure this fairly stoner-y affair has just enough quirk, an atonal jazz saxophone steps in for the instrumental break, throwing out seemingly random notes, offering a pleasingly scary alternative to Ronald’s original, carny inspired keyboard solo. Aside from the vocal melody, it’s almost nothing like the weirdly jaunty recording found on the Sparks LP and should be applauded for its unique approach.

Earl of Hell play ‘Falling In Love With Myself Again’ with something closely approximating the original melody, and their recording’s choice of carnival interlude and quirky second vocal definitely make it sound like something from the world of the Mael Brothers. However, a much heavier guitar and booming vocal make it seem more like something from the Mr. Bungle vault. For the listener who enjoys stuff on the chunkier side, the obvious nods to Mike Patton’s wilfully difficult side project make this essential listening, whilst alt rockers Krooked Tongue load up ‘Hasta Manana Monsieur’ with a world of fuzz bass, soaring guitars and melodic vocals in such a manner that it could easily pass for a self-penned out-take from their debut EP. It really doesn’t matter if you love or hate Sparks, this stands up on its own. Elsewhere, Chaosmonaut mix punky guitar riffs and wailing vocalduring a performance of ‘Complaints’ that sounds like a noisy version of a Sparks tribute band. Their rather spirited attitude works in their favour here, as does their insistence on taking Ron’s stabbing piano sound and amping it up to the point where it actually becomes a little distracting. That said, given how much energy the band conveys here, it would have been nice to hear them thinking a little further outside of the box and sticking less closely to the source material, but a rather pointed lead guitar employed during the second half of the number makes up for any feelings of relative safely.

Another of this tribute’s standout recordings comes from Sargent Thunderhoof, a band charged with transforming the intro of ‘Thank God It’s Not Christmas’ into a wall of noise where there’s a huge influence from the world of shoegaze. When the melodies arrive, a crooning vocal and dark indie backdrop do a fantastic job of taking the dour lyric and placing it somewhere that, somehow, feels more appropriate than Sparks’ world of pulsing rhythms and strange vocal quirks. It isn’t necessarily better – just a little more natural sounding, and very different. If you aren’t sold on its semi-gothy qualities at first, stick it out; the end of the track shares a rather grand lead guitar where flowing notes bring something unexpectedly theatrical to the fore. The musical journey \ends somewhere very different to where it began, but it is a very enjoyable one. In terms of making the material their own, a lot of the bands here have offered some great work, but with regards to offering something almost perfect on its own merits, this cover is hard to beat.

…And what of the album’s two best known tracks? Thankfully, those big hits turn out brilliantly. Tony Reed sounds like he’s having the best time cranking the opening riff from ‘Amateur Hour’ and the track’s huge vocal captures the spirit of the original, whilst pulling a little influence from other glam fare. Somewhere around the second chorus it becomes almost impossible not to bounce around to the still superb melody, and by the time the instrumental break rolls around, those multi-tracked guitars have gone so deeply into a world of art-prog-glam, there’s little doubt that this cover is a winner. ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both of Us’, meanwhile, trades in the huge theatrics for another goth/metal hybrid approach, with Phoxjaw at the helm. The staccato moments that bridge the end of the chorus with the verse now crunch with a genuine force; a howling guitar cuts through parts of the verse in a way that challenges the vocal; a few atmospheric moments lend an otherworldly quality, and the featured vocal’s gruffness brings a genuine menace that fits the threat within the lyric. By the time the band opt for a brief, sledgehammer-heavy coda, if they’ve not won over the audience, they’ve at least beaten them into submission. Opinion will certainly be divided as to whether this works or not, but there will be a lot of metal fans who’ll definitely be impressed.

It takes a lot of balls to cover Sparks, regardless of a band’s chosen genre. The Mael Brothers’ best work is so distinctive, it could never be improved. Drastically changed, and occasionally twisted into something great on its own merits, but not necessarily improved. But then, to farm out the whole of ‘Kimono My House’ to a selection of guitar based bands from the underground and hope for the best? That’s insane. Luckily for Pale Wizard Records, despite resulting in a release that’s likely destined to take a hiding from a very obsessive fan base, it was a weird idea that paid off. This might even make you see the Sparks album in a whole new light. It can be hard to experience some of this material in such drastically different musical attire, but, if this release somehow makes a generation of music fans more interested in the original album, or more likely acts as an easy gateway to some unfamiliar riff-lords, then it’s all been worthwhile.

April 2024