There’s a lot to appreciate about Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix, but beyond their musical ability, I always loved how weird the two were. Hendrix included little skits on his albums and seemed to vibrate at his own frequency. Vaughan was similarly odd, running around in a hat and kimono, like some kind of east-meets-west analogy come to life. And the weirdness actually translated to their playing, give it a boldness that allowed them to take risks and express themselves in ways that never felt self-conscious. But today’s musicians don’t always have the luxury of weirdness. Instead, there’s a pressure for them to seem serious and deep. Sparky Parker’s In the Dark is enjoyable and while the name is kind of unusual, I wish he had come up in an era when artists felt more license to let their freak flags fly. Because there’s a palpable undercurrent of weirdness that the album hints at but never truly unleashes.
As I write this, it’s less than 24 hours after Thanksgiving and I’m starting to think about/obsess over my year-end album lists (my apartment looks like the middle act of A Beautiful Mind, with yarn drawn between album covers pinned to walls and boards covered in nonsensical formulas). Too much music writing is ranking and sorting. The economics of the industry means that if an album isn’t transcendent, it might not be heard (and even if it is amazing, still might not find its audience). Which is, if you stop to think about it, an absurd standard. There’s lots of interesting music that, while not in the top 10 or 20 or even 50 things released in a given year, is still pretty neat. There’s just so much music released each year, it’s hard for anything to crack through to the surface. And that’s an additional pressure on artists, making them feel like they’re one goofy move away from being relegated to the wrong pile.
Which brings us back to Sparky Parker. The album is solid blues rock. He’s got a standard rock and roll voice, that while not huge, gets across a sense of urgency. Parker’s also a decent songwriter with a more-than-capable backing band. The guitar and vocals are way upfront in the mix, which I appreciate on a solo album, as it allows you to really hear what the artist is packing. All of the pieces are there. This is a well-executed album. But it gets downright exciting in its very occasional, way-too-short forays into oddness. The most notable detour is on “Quintana,” an instrumental that sounds like a B-52s outtake. It’s just less than two and a half minutes of surf pop featuring bluesy melodies that go Middle Eastern for moments at a time. It’s a fun track on its own, but in the context of the album, where it feels like it comes out of nowhere, it’s just delightful.
“In the Dark” is a familiar rock tune, however between the relentless beat and enough wah-wah pedal to snap an ankle, the song winds up with a bit of a disco vibe. It’s not dance music in a ZZ Top kind of way. Instead it feels like Parker got way too into the wah and accidentally danced his song up. It’s a strange musical accident, but a good one. It gives a peek into Parker’s personality, like catching someone singing to themselves.
Artists like to seem dark and brooding. You very rarely see anyone smiling on an album cover. And it’s fine. Darkness brings you to danger and danger is exciting. But a good curve ball musical choice, like random surf-pop, is just as dangerous and exciting. So let’s hope Parker embraces his inner freak and gives him more playing time on future albums.
The Review: 7/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Good Man
– 8 Days in the Doghouse
– In the Dark
The Big Hit
– In the Dark
Review by Steven Ovadia