One of the most important, yet one of the most oft-forgotten, details of being a pop band is that pop music is essentially fun. This is especially lost on the myriad guitar-pop revivalists who try to recreate every note of their favorite Badfinger and Raspberries records. They know craft, but they sometimes forget why they do it. Why pop music is free of the weight and seriousness of much of its rocking kin.
Los Angeles-based Sparkle*jets u.k. (get it? They’re not really from the UK) is one of the most talked-about, best, and most innovative guitar pop bands on the L.A. scene at the moment, and one of the main reasons why is their sense of sheer, unadulterated fun.
The Sparkle*jets vocalists Michael Simmons and Susan West are two drastically different front persons. Simmons’ vocals are plain, clean, more typical power-pop fodder, and provide an ideal centerpiece for some of the band’s more traditional moments. By contrast, West is somewhat of a loose cannon, channeling the ghosts of Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson (which is not an easy task, since they’re not dead) to scream and shreik through every track. And just when you think you’ve got her pinned down, at the end of the disc she tosses out the cutesy “A Nice One”, a song more precious and adorable than Hello Kitty. And once the Sparkle*jets even organized a tribute album to themselves and invited their friends to cover their songs, just for the hell of it. This all makes Bamboo Lounge, the band’s second album proper (not counting the tribute), a wildly disparate listen, careening in a bunch of musical directions but always maintaining a cheeky sense of humor and fun.
Over the course of fourteen tracks, the Sparkle*jets pull bits and pieces of ’70s junk culture-from the tiki lounge-inspired cover art and album title to musical lifts from the gaudier side of ’70s hard rock-into one single, coherent rock ‘n’ roll album. They don’t shy away from a few blatant musical lifts: “She May Be Nice” and “Beautiful Girl” each take large bits of melody from Kiss’s “Rock and Roll All Nite” and Elvis Costello’s “Alison”, respectively. But that’s part of the charm: while they incorporate bits of hard rock inspired by Kiss and Heart and pop from sources as far and wide as Elvis Costello and Jackson Browne, the Sparkle*jets create an alternate take of the ’70s where there was no cool and uncool, no prog-rock or hard rock or punk. There was just rock.
So the Susan West songs-raging rockers like “Real Nice Time” and the hilarious, sneering “They Shoot Square Dancers, Don’t They?” are the meat, potatoes, and gimmick: because her voice and her attitude are what distinguish the Sparkle*jets from their peers. But Mike Simmons’s tracks, from the straightforward rock of “She May Be Nice” to the power-ballad “Sorry”, manage to inject some life into power-pop cliches without abandoning that good old catchy chorus. Bamboo Lounge is geek rock at its finest, because it’s (us) geeks who’ll get the musical references and get the jokes. This is an album for everyone who grew up in a house with fake wood paneling and orange shag carpeting, for everyone who sat around and played Atari in a finished suburban basement. In short, for everyone who experienced some degree of ’70s culture but who never knew or cared what about it was cool.