“Where have all the good men gone,” Bonnie Tyler once asked. While she was clearly crying out for a different type of loving, I’m wondering why the blokes of this world are flying the vocalist flag so poorly. Over the last few years, the girls have brought forth Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Adele, Estelle … and the list goes on. Who have we got? James Blunt, James Morrison and Newton Faulkner. Forgive me if I don’t sound over-enthusiastic, but none of those guys are really doing anything special. Perhaps the James Brown, Lionel Ritchie and Bruce Springsteen-esque vocal powerhouses of yore are a dying breed.
Or perhaps not; Sam Sparro is our light at the end of the tunnel. Alongside breakthrough acts including Daniel Merriweather and Patrick Wolf, Sparro has been making a lot of noise with his new-age funk. On the face of it, we have a 26 year old, openly gay Australian with a flamboyant dress sense and falsetto voice, but there is far more to him than that. He’s brought a fresh mix of electro, funk and soul to the table that has turned heads for the last few years.
However, fame is a cruel, cruel beast. One minute you are there, riding a wave of fan admiration, the next you are some washed-up “has-been” performing your songs in trashy bars. His first single, “Black And Gold”, was a hit across the globe, dominating music video channels and chart programs. A Grammy nomination followed … after all, the support of the industry had always been there- not many could class Chaka Chan as one of their biggest ‘fans’ at the tender age of 10. Sam Sparro was going to be a star.
Or not. As a species, humans seem to hold the ability to lose interest at the flip of a coin. The album sunk, (in relative terms-#4 on the UK charts isn’t weak by most people’s estimation) and the release of a consequent single was canceled.
So, why did the album sink? Well, most people bought into “Black And Gold”, not Sam Sparro. As a single, it was flexible, just as playable at a beach party, as in a seedy nightclub. It does, however, cut a lonely figure on the album, as the funk influences are seriously reined in, whereas elsewhere his imagination is let to run free.
Despite the critical reception, most of my musically inclined friends share an undying love of this album. He has a cult-like following, and I am sometimes embarrassed to class myself among them. Why, you might ask? Well, I suppose it doesn’t fit in with the mantle of a music fanatic. It’s the album I put on when I want to reveal the inner performer. There is something so outrageously flamboyant about Sam Sparro, you really can’t afford to hold anything back.
As a debut album, this is an audacious move, but then, that’s exactly what makes this guy special. The music is so carefully crafted that you really don’t notice the pure volume of random artistry that finds its way onto each and every song. The nearest example is Kanye’s 808’s & Heartbreak, filled to the brim with electronic beeps, drum kicks, hand claps and what not. This is really an immersive experience, the modern age’s version of the wall of sound technique. By God, does it work …
The first four songs set the tone brilliantly, and are all perfection. The frenetic celebration of “21st Century Life” quickly blends into “Sick’s” electro driven introspection.
“How do I cling to the frame of divine timing/Why do I doubt sometimes, that of which I know for sure/Why when I’ve had enough, do I seem to ask for more?” … “Too Many Questions”
And while his current situation is dire, things could have been so different. His first promo single “Cottonmouth” was edgy, a recollection of the effects of drug induced dehydration. Not exactly chart-baiting, and it was quickly glossed over. “Black And Gold” brought him back from the brink.
For every piece of lyrical wizardry, there are serious missteps – see “Clingwrap”: “You must have thought I was a snack/ because you’re sticking to me/ like clingwrap …” These are easily forgotten. Just let that silky smooth voice lull you into the groove, and the lyrics might as well mean nothing. Sparro has been attacked for his lapses, but he put it down to immaturity. “I’m silly sometimes,” Sparro said.
It’s another tick in the box with “Sally”. The album might be funk, but the delivery isn’t always PG:
‘Sally, oh those thick caramel thighs. And something else your momma gave you- those beautiful green eyes. The same kind of green, like the dollars that they stick to you.’
“Hot Mess” is a boast. It’s an unabashed gloating, and I love it. The pitch is perfect, rising up into a whistle, “I know you fancy yourself as a sexy bitch, it’s in the way that you a-a-a-r-r-re.” Even more impressive are his live performances of said song. I will quickly point you toward his unbelievable cover of “American Boy” (see below). This guy is versatility defined, switching it up between his soulful middle range, a rap and then his pitch perfect falsetto. Masterful.
Barring the first few tracks, “Can’t Stop This” was worthy of a single release. Sketchy guitars, echoed vocals and a siren synth from the ’80s really highlight how much variety the album showcases.
“Pocket” is another dark track, built around the repeated chorus of “Keep your friends close, and your enemies in your pocket.” This is all just far too easy for him, and at times he does slide backwards into his talent.
I take this album for what it represents – the birth, quiet and confident, of a future star. Sam Sparro has a lot to say, but yes, he loses it sometimes. Take it from me, with a little fine tuning album number two is going to be an opus. His currently untitled follow up is due August 31, 2009. Sam Sparro established him as one to watch, and that’s exactly what I’ll be doing.