BY JEFF LEVEN
There’s a part of me that wants to acknowledge up front that this review undoubtedly violates most principles of critical distance – after all, aside from being friends, section-mates, and the home band of 2/3 of my Parody band compatriots, Mr. Sparkle is Harvard Law School’s resident musical collective of note, and, as such, for me to review them is incestuous at best (after all, I am thanked in the liner notes) – hell, it’s just a step away from reviewing my own album (which, truth be told, I’d probably pan). That being said, rock journalism has always suffered from the average rock journalist’s desire to be a real performing musician, or barring that, at least be cool enough to hang out with them. The result has traditionally been that the relationship between bands and writers has been largely one of patronage and interpersonal overlap. Almost Famous, after all, hit pretty close to home for many rock writers, not just Cameron Crowe. So if I’m in awkward critical company, so be it – it’s fun to write about your friends and more fun yet to listen to them, particularly in this case.
Mr. Sparkle’s debut album, the aptly named Mr. Sparkle Agenda, is a free-wheeling spin through jazz, Dixie, swing, rock, and all points in between, accented and punctuated by the Sparklers’ blend of humor and politics. As the elegant piano and confidant guitar on the opener “Denial” establish, the music is by no means a mere vehicle in this venture – the arrangements are strong, thoughtful, but more than anything, jazzy. Will Stephens’ drumming is a case in point – rather than pounding his way across the toms, his cymbal work is serpentine yet lush as it snakes its way through the band’s arrangements. Johnny Carlsson’s work at the keyboards is a tremendous standout, punctuating the songs with a melodic sense that is unusual in its simultaneous adventurousness and concision. Paired with David Arkush’s Phish-esque guitar lines on “Happily Married Man,” it makes the tracks move without being overthought – a curse many bands of this ilk often stumble into. While some of the more eclectic ventures aren’t as seamless (witness the quasi-rap number “Evil About”), the overall effect is one of a jukebox put on shuffle- this is a band that can play a variety of styles and yet still maintain a sound you can trust as either a soundtrack to some toe-tapping as you write your briefs or pleasant listening on your afternoon T ride.
Lyrically, the songs alternate between conflicted but thoughtful ruminations like “Dixieland” to more humorous mock-ups like “Spats n Hats 99.” At times, vocalist Brett Harvey lends a certain Barenaked Ladies feeling to the affair (a comparison further enhanced by the band’s humor and overall touch), although few cheeky Canadian jambands boast a horn section! As self-produced works go, the production values are also very good – again, the tone is a cleaner, jazzier one that results in something less than an ear-blasting octane-chugging rawk monster, but clearly the goal was something more subtle- intricacy and wit are the order of the day here, and as such, Mr. Sparkle’s agenda is clearly realized.
A great band, and an album worth picking up – all in all, I may pan my own album someday, but I can’t in good faith say anything but good things about this one.