New Artist Spotlight: The Musical Folk Art of Sparky’s Magic Piano
In the visual arts world, the term “folk art” refers to a type of raw art that is usually homemade and serves a practical purpose, but does not necessarily refer to the medium or genre. Quite a far cry from anything definitively ‘folk’ in terms of music, London indie pop duo Sparky’s Magic Piano nonetheless seem like a musical version of folk art of sorts. From their quirky name to their eclectic style to the fact that their music is kind of stitched together from home using every instrument available, there’s this kind of family art project. Their second LP, Never the same color twicereleased last Friday, September 9, the homemade show can be as good as anything from the studio.
We all know the story of Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell writing and recording Billie’s debut album and all of their previous singles in the back bedroom of their childhood home, not to mention nowadays, any electronic producer knows that the next big banger can come through someone’s shitty laptop. Quality music hardly requires large studios and lavish equipment anymore. That’s not quite what we’re looking for with Sparky’s Magic Piano. While the work itself sounds quite professional, with good sound design, a hint of electronics, and deceptively complex composition, the style of the music itself evokes the picturesque.
Main style listeners will notice upon entering Never the same color twice is a sort of popified psychobilly/beach rock, similar to what was popular in the UK and US in the late 80s/early 90s with the intro tracks “Shiny Shiny Shoes” and “A Pair of Keys”. Fans of this kind of pre-Oasis period rock will catch some kicks from REM, The Pixies, The Cramps, Flaming Lips, and even some of the early MGMTs. There is of course the undeniable correlation with 60s surf rock bands like The Beach Boys. However, Oli Bartlett’s minimal guitar work is definitely closer to the 90s and compliments his wife Marion Bartlett’s whispy Angie Hart-from-Frente! or Leigh-Nash-of-Sixpence None the Richer-esque vocals. More modern vocalist equivalents might be Birdy or Phoebe Bridgers, but these tracks are so ’90s-perfect that it’s got to pay homage to the sibilant singers of the past, too.
Later in the album things get a bit deeper and heavier with tracks like “Colette” and “Hanging for the Bang”. With heavier, more shoegaze-inspired guitars and complex composition like the jazz trumpet in “Colette” and the orchestral arrangements in the closer album “As Good as It Gets” begin to really take Sparky’s Magic Piano away from the chamber band playing with synths for true indie pop powerhouse.
These synths make a bigger appearance in the second half of Never twice… too, but unlike their first album Feel the rhythm and do it anyway! released nearly 15 years ago, synths are used here for harmony and as part of the sound design rather than being front and center. This harmony is key to the husband and wife duo’s richer sound, taking a page from the wall of mid-’90s sound acts like Lush, Sonic Youth and Catherine Wheel. Meanwhile synths, flute and glockenspiel, yes, you read that right: glockenspiel, are ornaments that serve to modernize the sound, a’la The Polyphonic Spree or Arcade Fire. Listening to songs like “NTSC” or “Permanent Pen”, in fact, it will be hard to believe that these big sounds come from just two people.
So where is the piano in all of this? Sparky’s Magic Piano might seem like a strange name for a project that only has one song with a recognizable analog piano track, after all. The group actually takes its name from a series of stories released on vinyl by Capitol Records in the 1950s and 60s, featuring a character created by the label named Sparky. There was also the 1987 animated film of the same name, starring famous actors like Vincent Price and Cloris Leachman.
Trivia aside, the name Sparky’s Magic Piano is another ironic piece of folk art for this duo whose current sound is anything but folk. Since, in the title of the album, Oli and Marion declare that they will have Never the same color twice, no one can predict the eccentric couple will carry on with that exact sound, but with the rich and diverse style contained within this album and the evolution of their early work, it would be fair to say they can only improve from from here. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take another decade and a half before album three is released.
Never the same color twice is out now and can be streamed on Spotify or purchased on Bandcamp.