In 1979 Ron and Russell Mael, better known to the world as Sparks, issued No.1 in Heaven, a record that paired the duo’s characteristic humor with production courtesy Italian genius Giorgio Moroder. These are the guys who had by then gifted the world with records such as Kimono My House and A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing and would, by the early ‘80s, issue Whomp That Sucker and Angst in My Pants. If you’ve never heard those clever boys—and statistics suggest that you may not have—race out now and find something from their considerable discography and cherish the crap out of it.
Wait, you say, this ain’t 1979 and the band in question is Wampire not Sparks, dummy. Sure, sure. But Wampire, the duo comprised of Rocky Tinder and Eric Phipps, owe something to Sparks whether Tinder and Phipps know it or not (and, statistically speaking, they probably do.) This record combines those mid-period disco sounds with the ironic-cum-iconic humor that has been omnipresent for Sparks. But enough about those Mael brothers and more about this act.
The joke in Sparks was that the brothers could sing about conformity, sex, and even get meta when delivering woulda shoulda been a hit songs. The joke here is channeling vintage sounds from the ‘80s and singing about the unexpected, the unusual, the mundane in such a way that you say, “Whoa, that’s kinda clever” (see “Snacks”). Trouble is, the joke knows it’s a joke and keeps reminding the listener of that at seemingly every turn.
Produced by Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Jake Portrait, Curiosity does get the retro thing right. You’re transported to an ‘80s arcade, to some low budget ‘80s horror movie, or a trip to one of those multi-leveled malls that took the nation by storm once upon a time. The vibe is heavy, man, and for that there should be at least some praise. As for the songwriting? Ah, not so much. There are musical numbers here that technically qualify as songs, one supposes, but they’re not of the variety that you’ll look back on in five years and think, “Oh, yeah, that little ditty by Wampire changed my life”.
It’s hard to distinguish one joke, er, song from another. Sure, some of this is funny and, yes, it makes you wanna get your groove back (especially the opening, “The Hearse”); but none of the tunes ever really go anywhere except in circles such that the nearly five minutes that “The Hearse” occupies on the record comes to feel like nearly a half an hour. There are vocals, sure, but they’re kind of buried or sit there with some oohs and ahhs, sounding hazy like the smoke filled apartment of a college sophomore. “I Can’t See” seems like a reprise of “The Hearse”, albeit shorter and with a little more excitement.
“Outta Money” almost feels like its own song, one that stands out from the herd, but the buried vocals and tendency for plodding rhythms derails the best moments of what might have been a pretty good idea. “Trains” is a little cooler, with some really nice guitar work and vocals that aren’t entirely lost in the soup. Trouble is, there seems to be more attention to whether the song adheres to the duo’s concept than whether it’s a fully realized song; Read: The joke knows it’s a joke and wants you to know it’s a joke and reminds you of that every chance it has, instead of giving you credit for being smart and being capable of finding subtleties. The penultimate “Snacks” is all filler, no thriller and the closing “Magic Light” only serves to deepen the disappointment of what could have been a promising record.
This band has a cool concept, one just wishes that it was more band and less concept.