Sam Sparro is a young artist who fits easily into the cadre of artists purveying the sort of watered-down soul that passes for Top 40 dance music. In the UK, this music has catapulted off the twin popularity of Amy Winehouse’s white soul and the electro scene, and has a strong hold on the less progressive dance clubs. And what makes Sam Sparro different from all of them? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Look, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with populism. Pop music, and dance-pop, can be sparkling and euphoric (see Annie). Soul music, even when leveraged into a modern electronic context, can be exuberant and celebratory (see Jamie Liddell). But somehow their combination often comes out feeling, well, somewhat mercenary. I’m thinking of Calvin Harris, of course, but also Young Love from last year; both artists have the spark of momentary success, but don’t have much substance. Sam Sparro, even more than these other artists, seems to be the product of a powerful PR machine. Born in Sydney, he grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in London; he’s been around the acting and recording industries for a while, and though Sam Sparro is his debut, the singles “Black & Gold” and “Cottonmouth” are (above anything else) confident.
Classic soul rhythms and melodic tropes are all over Sam Sparro, so that when songs are successful, you’re not quite sure if it’s on their own merit or through association. “Black & Gold” marries familiar Big Beat house music tropes with full soul instrumentation, but the chorus only becomes memorable through sheer repetition. At the end, the beat cuts out and vocodered vocals layer up for a robotic stab at intimacy. On “Too Many Questions”, it’s plodding synth bass line and fake string hits. On “21st Century Life”, it’s jumpy funk and ’80s/echoing percussion. None of these things are terribly off-point on their own; they just add up to a not-very-outstanding whole. Truth is, if you were after real soul music, you’d listen to Jamie Liddell.
Sonically, the most interesting thing on the album might be the short interlude “Recycle It!”, in which a beatbox-y beat momentarily recalls Matthew Herbert; even this is somewhat compromised by the cheesy French vocals reminiscent of Flight of the Conchords. The jokey aspect of a number of Sparro’s songs is difficult to parse: is he making fun of himself? Or is he pretending to do so in order to retain the appearance of detached irony? I suspect the latter. “Cottonmouth”, for example, appears to be ridiculing the dangers of getting high when you should be working, but in reality it’s a celebration. Groups like Chromeo tackle the ironic electro Romeo role with much more intelligence and panache.
Sparro’s voice is smooth enough, and is thrown around with enough vigor, to signal the soul touchstones he references — but on the ballads, and when he reaches for falsetto, it slips flat or becomes thin. The most obvious example is “Still Hungry”, which shoots for sympathetic characterization but falls flat. Sparro tries to illustrate the irony of the battler (he’s got to “scrounge for 2 weeks” because he “bought a pair of $250 jeans”), and though the babble of voices in the background’s meant to illustrate that no one cares, the point of the whole song is steeped in self-pity. He got it right, though — if he did spend all his money on jeans, we really don’t care.
So as things go along, the similar, recycled beats meld into one another with little to distinguish them. They’re set in similar vocal ranges and shuttle between minor differences in tempo. On “Cut Me Loose”, Sparro declares: “Nothing cuts me loose like music / I cut the rug up all night long when I hear my favourite song”. Words may be true, but I wager the song that causes that reaction in most of his listeners won’t be found on Sam Sparro.