As soon as I heard a sample of “George Romero,” the second song on The Sprites’ album Modern Gameplay, my inner 14-year-old begged to hear the full album. “Hey, this is really cool,” that younger version of myself said. “It speaks to me. I mean, look, it’s a song about Dawn of the Dead that even mentions Dario Argento and Sam Raimi.” I buckled to his whims and after giving Modern Gameplay a listen, I’m glad my inner 14-year-old spoke up.
Modern Gameplay plays like examination of a geeky mind done with an idyllic pleasantness, a bit like if The Orange Peels specialized in Devo covers. Apart from the zombie survival fantasy of “George Romero,” the band also covers the world of blogging (“I Started a Blog Nobody Read”), BBSes (“Me and the SysOp”), old-school video games (“Modern Gameplay”) and even things deadlier than robots (“The Most Dangerous Thing in the World”). This would all amount to plain novelty if frontman Jason Korzen didn’t know how to write a fun song. In his previous band, Barcelona, Korzen crafted some delightful new wave pop, a tradition he continues in the form of The Sprites’ new wave-tinged pop; all this much to the delight of both my inner 14-year-old and my outward 25-year-old typing the album’s praises.
As previously mentioned, there is a certain easy-going breeziness about The Sprites, which is made apparent on the opener “Bionic Hands.” One of the happiest tragic tales I’ve heard this year, the song centers on a guy who gets robotic hands after an accident and can’t feel his girlfriend’s touch. Yet through it all, his girlfriend sticks by him and even knits him mittens to help out. Korzen’s lyrics, which are unpretentious and straightforward throughout, keep the song from seeming saccharine. The straightforward lyrics are particularly effective on “A Good Friend Sticks to You,” which seems to have been written for anyone who’s moving away, knows people moving away or whose life is generally in flux. As Korzen sings the title line, it’s had not to mouth the rest of the clichÃ© with him by the song’s end.
The album’s title track extols the virtues of 8-bit video gaming while saying that modern video games with their hyperactivity and complicated controllers are just plain headache inducing. Korzen’s spiel on the glory of wood-grained video game systems and awkward joysticks is joined by subtle video game blips (at least I thought I heard them) and a synth melody that sounds like it could have come from an old game’s MIDI soundtrack.
Korzen’s wife Amy takes lead vocals on “I Love You, You Retard,” my inner 14-year-old’s favorite song title on the album (and, admittedly, my outward 25-year-old’s favorite, too). Amy’s ode on an absent-minded nerd has the spastic pace of a heart hit with young, inexplicable, frustrating love as she recounts her lovable retard’s quirks: his fickle music tastes, his nebbishness and his all-night sessions of EverQuest (though really, Worlds of Warcraft is cooler — “Leeeroy Jenkins!”). In an act of great song sequencing, the song after “I Love You, You Retard” is the charming “Unconditional Love Definition,” which is about loving someone despite outward appearances and other quirks. Unlike its quick-paced predecessor, “Unconditional Love Definition” is far more relaxed and yearning. There are some lovely lines about not caring what someone wears, if his or her hair goes gray and if senility finally claims that last vestiges of a loved one’s senses. “We never did make much sense anyway,” Korzen sings reassuringly. Even the song’s self-deprecating line “I’ve never written a love song before and I think you know why” seems to have its heart in the right place.
One of those brisk albums where none of its songs surpass three-and-a-half minutes, Modern Gameplay is above all a delightful surprise. Really, it’s hard not to use the word “delight” describing The Sprites’ new album. It’s clever without trying to be clever and catchy in a seamless way. Like that nerd sung about in “I Love You, You Retard,” the album is lovable because it’s comfortable being itself rather than trying to be something it’s not. And what it is is a thing of geeky beauty.
Given, the inner 14-year-old in me kind of wishes there was a song about comic books, maybe some sort of ballad about Thor and Beta Ray Bill. Maybe on the next album, I tell my younger inner self, maybe on the next album.
The Rentals – Return of the Rentals
Devo – Freedom of Choice
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