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Crossover Prog • United States

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Sparks biography
Formed in 1972 in Los Angeles, USA - Still active as of 2017

L.A brothers Ron (keyboards) and Russell (vocals) Mael formed their first band Halfnelson in 1970 along with the other brothers, Earle Mankey (guitar) and Jim Mankey (bass). Harley Feinstein completed the quintet on drums. It was at this time Todd Rundgren honed in on them and convinced them to change their name to the SPARKS and in 1971, under a new label, their self titled debut was released.

Their brand of sound quickley developed a cult following especially in the UK, which prompted the Mael brothers crossing the Atlantic and setting up base there. The Mankey brothers went on to do other things, not least one of them joining Concrete Blonde. So with new band members to compliment the Mael brothers the SPARKS released their warmly received "Kimono My House" and later that same year another studio release called "Propoganda". The Mael brothers never ones to rest on their laurels returned to the USA after the not so successful 1975 release, "Indiscreet". Their glamorous art rock, crossover, new wave cocktail mix of sound even ventured into disco territory in the late 70's/early 80's. They remained prolific up to 1988's "Interior Design" before disappearing off the radar for a while until 1994 when more studio releases followed.

Their most recent release is 2009's "The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman", an eccentric and bizaar album, not dissimilar to a symphonic rock opera. The SPARKS always remained uncompromising and original to their sound, the proof of which is that their cult following still remains to this day. Visit their website also for a great insight to their history.

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Buy SPARKS Music

BMG Rights Management (UK) Ltd 2017
Audio CD$9.84
$7.14 (used)
Kimono My HouseKimono My House
Extra tracks · Import · Remastered
Island 2008
Audio CD$4.85
The Best of SparksThe Best of Sparks
Repertoire 2000
Audio CD$6.98
$5.25 (used)
Terminal JiveTerminal Jive
Import · Limited Edition
Imports 2017
$29.35 (used)
Extra tracks · Import · Remastered
Imports 2006
Audio CD$4.99
$6.46 (used)
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SPARKS discography

Ordered by release date | Showing ratings (top albums) | Help to complete the discography and add albums

SPARKS top albums (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

4.05 | 26 ratings
Halfnelson [Aka: Sparks]
3.19 | 23 ratings
A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing
4.08 | 60 ratings
Kimono My House
4.08 | 51 ratings
3.06 | 37 ratings
3.64 | 26 ratings
Big Beat
3.25 | 18 ratings
Introducing Sparks
3.65 | 22 ratings
No.1 In Heaven
2.60 | 15 ratings
Terminal Jive
3.28 | 18 ratings
Whomp That Sucker
2.97 | 16 ratings
Angst In My Pants
2.84 | 13 ratings
In Outer Space
1.37 | 11 ratings
Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat
2.04 | 8 ratings
Music That You Can Dance To
1.30 | 8 ratings
Interior Design [Aka: Just Got Back From Heaven]
3.33 | 16 ratings
Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins
2.86 | 9 ratings
4.31 | 37 ratings
Lil' Beethoven
4.00 | 23 ratings
Hello Young Lovers
3.52 | 16 ratings
Exotic Creatures Of The Deep
3.16 | 12 ratings
The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman
4.00 | 2 ratings
3.33 | 3 ratings

SPARKS Live Albums (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

3.00 | 2 ratings
Two Hands, One Mouth: Live in Europe

SPARKS Videos (DVD, Blu-ray, VHS etc)

SPARKS Boxset & Compilations (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

3.00 | 6 ratings
0.00 | 0 ratings
The Best of Sparks

SPARKS Official Singles, EPs, Fan Club & Promo (CD, EP/LP, MC, Digital Media Download)

3.05 | 3 ratings
This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us
3.86 | 2 ratings
Dick Around

SPARKS Reviews

Showing last 10 reviews only
 No.1 In Heaven by SPARKS album cover Studio Album, 1979
3.65 | 22 ratings

No.1 In Heaven
Sparks Crossover Prog

Review by Warthur
Prog Reviewer

4 stars After their glam rock-influenced style as pioneered on Kimono My House an its followups stopped paying the bills, Sparks shifted gear to synthpop territory. The transition is actually quite successful: they brought in Giorgio Moroder to help out at the production desk, which was a good start, and since their music had always focused a lot on Ron Mael's keyboards a shift to more modern electronic sounds seemed entirely natural. Russell's vocal style also takes well to the synthpop format, and their ornate writing style adds a somewhat progressive spin to the compositions. Yes, it's cheesy, but "Tryouts For the Human Race" and the like are hardly simplistic disco numbers.
 This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us by SPARKS album cover Singles/EPs/Fan Club/Promo, 1974
3.05 | 3 ratings

This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us
Sparks Crossover Prog

Review by Matti
Prog Reviewer

3 stars 'This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us' is easily the best known song by this quirky art-pop group led by the eccentric Mael brothers from Los Angeles. I don't know if it can be described as prog, at least in the usual sense, but it makes most music of their British contemporaries QUEEN sound lame in comparison, and a lot of 10CC as well. In some way they sounded like being many years ahead of their time. This fast, frenzy, highly strung song with theatrically high vocals is like a turkish pepper: it leaves no one cold but doesn't necessarily make you want more. An interesting detail about the writing of this song is that originally it was thought to include (for the chorus) various clichÚs familiar from B movies, but "this town ain't big enough for both of us" won the honour alone.

'Barbecutie' on the single's B side is an average Sparks song, reminding a little of the early ROXY MUSIC (e.g. 'Virginia Plain') but is more straight forward [glam] rock. Nothing I would want to hear many times. I must say Sparks have never been among my listenings. When I was a child the album covers of Kimono My House and especially Propaganda (with the tied couple seated on a boat) made a strong impression on me, and 'This Town...' still sounds powerful and unique whenever I happen to hear it. Once I borrowed a compilation of this band but I didn't much like the music in general. So if there's a band that I want to remember by just one particular song, it's this one.

 Two Hands, One Mouth: Live in Europe by SPARKS album cover Live, 2013
3.00 | 2 ratings

Two Hands, One Mouth: Live in Europe
Sparks Crossover Prog

Review by tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer

3 stars Somehow, despite having regularly recorded albums for over 40 years, Sparks didn't release any live albums before 2013. If the brothers had felt really ballsy, their first live release would have been a 21-disc boxset of the Sparks Spectacular from 2008, which would also have freed them from ever considering another live album thereafter. If they'd wanted to go a more conventional route, they could have released a comprehensive 2-CD live album, recorded with a full band, which could have provided 2 hours or so of career- spanning live entertainment. Well, the brothers decided to go a route that's unusual but also a little underwhelming. This is a 2-CD live album, but the second disc is only about 20 minutes long (containing the encore from the show), and the lineup is just Ron playing keyboards and Russell singing, with no support (hence the name of the album).

This set is worth hearing and is basically enjoyable, but it's underwhelming on the whole. I would say there are two significant highlights that stand out from the rest. The first is a rendition of "Singing in the Shower," a track that originated in a post-Interior Design collaboration with Les Rita Mitsouko and had an absolutely horrendous arrangement but sounds quite nice when given a sparser music hall treatment. The second is the version of "The Number Song in Heaven" that they perform in the encore, focusing on the first half of the song and giving Russell's incredibly well-preserved 64-year-old falsetto a chance to shine. Plus, the moment when Ron switches from the angelic choir keyboard parts into the more rhythmic sequenced sounds is a great and memorable one.

Aside from these performances, though, the lack of a full band ends up forcing pretty much all of the set into a fairly limited sonic space, and most of the renditions on here end up as amusing trifles. The setlist is heavy on albums that could provide material for such an approach, of course; Propaganda contributes 4 tracks (the title track, "At Home, At Work, At Play," "Something for the Girl With Everything," "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth"), Indiscreet ("Hospitality on Parade," "Under the Table With Her"), No. 1 in Heaven ("The Number One Song in Heaven", "Beat the Clock") and Hello Young Lovers ("Metaphor," a sadly shortened "Dick Around") 2 a piece , Lil' Beethoven 3 ("My Baby's Taking Me Home," "The Rhythm Thief," "Suburban Homeboy"), and there are scattered tracks from here and there. Kimono only has the obligatory "This Town" nod (and boy it sounds odd without guitar), the 80s are only acknowledged with "Singing in the Shower" and "Sherlock Holmes," Exotic Creatures only has "Good Morning" to represent it, and of course there's "When Do I Get to Sing My Way?" to close off the main set. There's also a really dumb rarity called "The Wedding of Jacqueline Kennedy to Russell Mael" (in which Russell pretends to get married to Jacqueline Kennedy and Ron plays the Wedding March), a short medley of material from The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, and a totally forgettable new song at the end in the title track. Oh, and there's a fun keyboard medley at the beginning called "Sparks Overture," where some songs that made the album are joined by others that were probably performed but not recorded ("I Married Myself" and "Looks, Looks, Looks" are recognizable in addition to "Good Morning," "When Do I Get to Sing My Way," "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us," "Dick Around," "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth," "Something for the Girl With Everything" and "Suburban Homeboy"). Many of these tracks sound just fine, but there's little here that I'd go out of my way to hear in place of the corresponding original, and that's something I need to rate a live album highly.

Honestly, if this ends up as the only live album they ever put out, I'll find myself wishing that they'd never bothered; it would have been better to have the gaping "what-if" than to answer it with a relative throwaway. Anybody who fancies themselves as a hardcore fan should seek this out, and it's worth a few listens, but a casual fan could do well to stay away.

 The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman by SPARKS album cover Studio Album, 2009
3.16 | 12 ratings

The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman
Sparks Crossover Prog

Review by tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer

3 stars Sometimes there's something to be said for staying in your lane. Through assorted means, the brothers received a commission to write a Sweden-related radio musical for Swedish national radio, and the result was this fictional tale involving the famous movie director Ingmar Bergman (played by Jonas Malmsj÷). The story, more or less, is as follows: soon after winning an award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, Ingmar feels the need to go watch an American action movie, despite the fact that he hates escapist art. He comes out of the movie theater and is surprised to find himself in Hollywood, with a limo waiting for him. He's taken to a meeting with various Hollywood studio executives, who try to persuade him to stay and make films there, despite the fact he hates everything about Hollywood and all that it stands for. Initially, he feels torn; he doesn't want to sell out, but the ability to have real financing for his movies seems like too good of a deal to pass on. After starting to settle into the realities of Hollywood life, including actresses who don't respect him and people constantly asking for his autograph, he decides he needs to get away, even though Sweden may or may not exist in this reality. As he's making his way on foot from his hotel, he realizes that he's being chased by police and helicopters, bringing him into the horrible irony of being an actor in a bad, big-budget Hollywood action film. He comes to the seashore, prays for help, meets the angel of Greta Garbo, goes to a movie with her, leaves the movie and finds himself back in Sweden. Fin.

I suppose it should be considered a success that this project isn't a complete disaster. There are a handful of really memorable and interesting bits, even if a lot of the album consists of "transitional" material. "Why Do You Take That Tone With Me?" features a great vocal from opera singer Rebecca Sj÷wall, depicting an angry Hollywood starlet who doesn't like the condescension that Bergman oozes with every word and action on the set, and there's a good deal of dramatic heft in it. "Limo Driver (Welcome to Hollywood)" offers a chance to hear Ron sing for the first time (spoiler alert: it's a good thing Russell usually sings), but it makes for a fun ditty, and the following "Mr. Bergman, How Are You?" does an entertaining job of depicting the attempts of the Hollywood executives to try and woo Bergman over. "The Studio Commissary" is a fun chance to namecheck a bunch of famous directors getting lunch over a vaudeville tune, "Autograph Hounds" has great interplay between the disorienting vocals and some intense synths, "Oh My God" (where Bergman asks for deliverance) is a decent emotional climax, and "Garbo Sings" (where Greta Garbo brings deliverance) is a great reprise of themes from earlier. Oh, and I guess that "He's Home" makes for a fitting, joyful ending.

For all of the good that this album provides, though, there are some fundamental flaws that are hard to escape. One of these is that, while we're clearly supposed to empathize with Bergman as he seeks refuge from the awfulness that is Hollywood, it's hard to tell exactly how he's been wronged here (well, aside from the weird teleportation kidnapping that kicks off the whole thing). Bergman really comes across as a prick, especially when he's on set (this sequence may or may not be in his mind, but then again the whole album may or may not be in his mind), and quite honestly I find myself siding with the Hollywood Studio Chief when he sings, "We've offered him the moon/Rejected us like goons/And all the while unfazed, his eyes were dull and glazed/But all that's in the past./He really has some gall/To turn us down at all/He really has some gall to turn us down at all/Is anyone that great?" near the end. If Ron and Russell meant for the listener to sympathize completely with Bergman, they didn't really succeed.

A second major problem comes from the baffling decision to make the English-language version available only as a digital download, with all 64 minutes contained within a single track. The provided rationale for this was essentially that they wanted people to have to listen to this as a whole, to treat it as a serious piece of art rather than a collection of individual tracks, but I find this explanation unsatisfying simply because musicals generally are broken up into individual tracks. This is a rare instance of the group taking itself much too seriously, and it's a little off-putting.

Despite these issues, though, I'd have to say that this is a decent album on the whole, and one that any serious Sparks fan should listen to two or three times. Yes, when Bergman solemnly intones near the end, "Thank you for listening to my story. You may be relieved to know the story is soon coming to an end" I find myself thinking "Damn straight," but it's a still very competent and well-crafted piece of work on the whole. I can't imagine wanting to listen to it more than two or three more times in my life, but I'm glad I listened to it as many times as I did.

 Exotic Creatures Of The Deep by SPARKS album cover Studio Album, 2008
3.52 | 16 ratings

Exotic Creatures Of The Deep
Sparks Crossover Prog

Review by tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer

4 stars The band's marketing strategy for promoting the release of this album was pretty brilliant as far as these things go. Around the time the band formally released the album, the band played a three week series of concerts in which the band played its albums from start to finish (one album per night, in chronological order), with a B-side or rarity as the encore, commencing in the grand live unveiling of Exotic (which by this point had been out for about three weeks) on the 21st night. The Sparks Spectacular, as of 2014, is not available in any form other than scattered Youtube videos, and it's not clear that it will ever be released, but if they ever got around to cleaning these tracks up for release I'd absolutely buy it and listen to the whole thing (even the lesser albums).

As often happens with cases where the promotional campaign is particularly inspired, the actual product being promoted is a slight letdown, even if it's got a lot of good material and is quite good on the whole. The biggest change with this album from the previous ones is that the remaining Lil' Beethoven elements from Hello Young Lovers are virtually wiped away; there's a lot of repetition in the vocal parts, but this repetition is much more conventional than on LB or some of the parts of HYL, and the instrumentation, while still based primarily in Ron's keyboards, rarely attempts the faux- orchestral sounds of yore. For all of the various eccentricities of this album, this is definitely a very normal album in comparison to what they'd done lately; Russell spends most of his time doing actual singing of actual vocal melodies, while Ron uses a variety of keyboard sounds that mostly sound pretty great. This isn't a good thing or a bad thing in and of itself, but I do suspect that the slightly higher concentration than usual of clearly second-rate material has at least some correlation to the lack of a unifying gimmick for the album. Again, it's a really good album on the whole, but it's definitely a clear step down from LB and HYL.

The best demonstration of the issues this album often has is "Strange Animal," which has some decent ideas that feel more like they were superglued to each other than made into a coherent song, and it makes for a pretty problematic 5:45. There are also a couple of tracks tucked near the end that, if they don't outright suck, are knocking on the door pretty hard. "The Director Never Yelled Cut" prominently features one of the least pleasant loops of Ron keyboards this side of "Let's Get Funky," and the verse melody is so oddly mechanical that I'm not sure why they ultimately decided it was a good idea to include it on the album. "Photoshop" sounds like a potential classic for about 15 seconds, but the combination of a great piano part and a tense Russell delivery ends up largely being wasted on a song where the central hook is the dumb chorus of "Photoshop me out of your life." I get that Ron was trying to update his "odd takes on dealing with exes" for the late 2000s, but this really ends up sounding like a stale variation of better attempts at this kind of writing.

The rest of the album is really good, though, and the highs are high enough to mostly overcome the low points. The first half starts and ends with "Intro" and "Intro Reprise," respectively, and they're a delightful bit of Russell harmonizing with himself around the great phrase, "I don't care if you love me, just so you like me" and wordless "aaah" sounds. Immediately following "Intro" comes "Good Morning," an amusing up-tempo song with Russell falsetto-singing about waking up with a woman that's way out his league and not understanding how this is possible, while Ron lays down a fantastic keyboard pattern on (electric?) piano and synths. The lyrics are full of silly lines, such as "While I fix you breakfast/I hope it's just your laugh that is infectious" or "Hey, where you going? Does dasvedonya really mean good morning?" and the alternation between the main groove and the "Thank you God for something rare as this ..." parts is quite nice. I also really dig the false ending.

"I Can't Believe That You Would Fall For All the Crap in This Song" and "Let the Monkey Drive" each boast their own great keyboard grooves with great vocal parts on top, with the former boasting a slower, more intense one and the latter boasting a quicker, snappier one. "I Can't Believe ..." ends up using a bunch of different synth tones, and there's a surprising amount of complexity in the details of what seems like a pretty simple track on first listen. "Let the Monkey Drive" is a rare instance of breaking out an orchestral patch (tucking it into the background mostly, but it's there), but the main attraction of the song is definitely the groove in the parts where the monkey is driving the car, and you'd better believe that I find myself doing response vocals to Russell's parts if nobody else is around.

The second half does have the surprising low points mentioned earlier, but it also has a bunch of really delightful material. "I've Never Been High" is a majestic anthemic ballad from its first moments, but it also has a rather interesting part in the middle where the chorus fragments into Russell repeatedly singing "I've never ah ah/I've never ah ah" before returning to the main part of the song. Lyrically, it's more or less a successor to "When Do I Get to Sing My Way?" in that it reflects on experiences never had, and the fact that he's never been high is hardly a point of celebration. Then it's off to the land of silly misogyny with "She Got Me (Pregnant)," a pseudo-ethnic (in the same way as "Goofing Off") song that's either about (a) an alternate reality in which women impregnate men and the man feeling angry about being used, or (b) the woman manipulating the man into getting her pregnant ... and the man feeling angry about being used. And best of all there's "Lighten Up, Morrissey," a guitar-heavy rocker about a guy who has difficulties with women because he's not as awesome as Morrissey. "She won't hang out with me, no, she won't hang out/'Til my biting wit bites like his/She won't hang out with me, no she won't hang out/'Til my quick retort's quick as his" is typical fare for the song, and I like the fact that, in the chorus, some of the iterations of the title end in a question mark (as if he's afraid to offend Morrissey by making such a request).

"This is the Renaissance" kinda sounds like a HYL leftover, what with the combination of the bombastic drums and the guitar using a tone that was pretty commonplace on that album, and it's basically a chance for Ron to write silly lyrics about the benefits of the Renaissance in relation to the Middle Ages. Sample lyric: "Science is here/Nothing left to fear/Though the Earth is flat/It's not as flat as we feared/Music's gone wild/No Gregorian here/Contrapuntal music is the music that your parents fear." It's not really an album highlight, but it's definitely not a lowlight either. And finally, just when it seems that the album has taken a pretty steep dive after "Lighten Up, Morrissey," the album closer "Likeable" redeems things more than a bit. It really seems like Ron is writing out a sad desperate fantasy here, where he easily gets along with everybody around him and everybody wants to be his friend. The song is energetic but angry and mournful, with Russell frequently using rhythmic speaking in a HYL manner over the hyperactive keyboard and guitar parts, and except for the semi-cheerful carnival music in the "No-one ever wears a frown ..." parts, the song really gives the sense of somebody yelling "I'M LIKEABLE! I'M LIKEABLE!" into a mirror before going outside to deal with society. The return to the "I don't care if you like me, just so you love me ..." parts from the beginning of the album is a nice touch as well.

The album's a bit of a mixed bag on the whole, yes, but there's so much really good material that I feel like this grade is justified. Given that Ron was well over 60 at this point and Russell was nearly as old, this album has to be considered a significant success by any reasonable standard. If you liked the last two albums you'll probably like this one, but be aware that it doesn't really sound the same.

 Hello Young Lovers by SPARKS album cover Studio Album, 2006
4.00 | 23 ratings

Hello Young Lovers
Sparks Crossover Prog

Review by tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer

4 stars One interesting effect of the unexpected artistic and critical success of Lil' Beethoven was that, for the first time in a couple of decades, there was (relatively) serious anticipation for a new Sparks album, not just among hardcore fans but among a broader public ("broader public" needs to be properly and narrowly constrained of course). For me, the biggest point of curiosity was exactly how Sparks was going to approach this album in context of the success of Lil Beethoven. On the one hand, making an album that closely adhered to the LB formula would have been a disappointment; much of the charm of that album came from what a one-of-a-kind novelty (meant in a good way) it was, and a followup that came across as a clone wouldn't be able to provide the same kind of impact. On the other hand, if they didn't make an album that closely adhered to the LB formula, what else exactly were they going to do? They couldn't very well go back into the world of techno after the mantra of "Say goodbye to the beat" that had helped define the tone of LB, but the alternative, assuming they wouldn't make a clone of LB, was to find a distinct and new approach. And ... well ... what if LB had been a fluke, and they didn't have another batch of inspiration to dive into?

The resulting album was about as good as could have been hoped for. In relation to LB, I will say that Hello Young Lovers is nowhere near a LB clone, but it's also an album that I can't imagine Sparks being able to make if they hadn't made LB first. There are definitely some familiar features from LB on here: the vocals break out of singing into speaking (sometimes rhythmic, sometimes not) pretty frequently, there are many phrases that are incessantly repeated, and Ron frequently uses orchestral (and occasionally harpsichord) patches in his keyboard parts. Beyond these common principles, however, the albums are quite different; there's a lot more guitar here (it's actually woven into several songs, as opposed to being lightly drizzled in the background occasionally or used for shock value), and there's a genuine swing in a lot of the songs that hadn't been a regular part of Sparks albums since Indiscreet or maybe bits of Introducing Sparks. All told, this is a great sound for the band at this stage of its career, and it made it 100% clear that the band's techno days were over (after all, LB still had one foot in the past with its chamber-techno leanings).

My initial impression on hearing the opening "Dick Around" was that this was one of the greatest things I'd ever heard, one of the most ridiculous tracks I'd ever heard, or possibly both, and I've essentially settled on the "both" choice. The lyrics tell of the rise and fall and eventual rise of a corporate go-getter who loses his woman and job and eventually gets the woman back, while in the interim he just dicks around, but just describing the lyrics doesn't begin to describe the song. Multi-track faux-operatic rapid-fire Russell is in full-force, with a solo Russell only appearing occasionally (making it all the more noteworthy when he does), and the music careens from "How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?" piano to metallic heavy rock to jazzy interludes in a way that seems preposterous on first listen but makes total sense thereafter (at least it did for me). There are too many interesting moments and lyrics in the song to give a full accounting, but I will say (a) that the first time the distorted guitars come in during the "Pull yourself up off the ground ..." verse is one of the great guilty pleasures in my life, (b) the lyrics in the "rise" part tell a pretty evocative story in not that many words, and (c) the chorus ("All I do now is dick around/When the sun goes up and the moon goes down/And the leaves are green and the leaves are brown/And all I do now is dick around") is just gobs of fun to sing when I listen to this. Plus, this track out-Queens Queen so heavily (after Sparks had more or less given birth to Queen) that it almost eliminates Queen's need to exist. The following "Perfume" is a rather fascinating up-tempo mix of piano, bass and grumbly guitars, with Russell matching a bunch of women (with the implication that these are all romantic interests from his past) with their choices of perfume, and him choosing to be with a girl who doesn't wear any perfume because she won't remind him of any of those women. So sue me, it's a ridiculous bit, but when Russell speaks, "The olefactory sense is the sense/That most strongly evokes memories of the past/Well, screw the past!" it cracks me up every time, and it's a fun diversion in the midst of a great song.

The next three tracks all have some clearly discernable weakness or another, but I still quite like all of them. "The Very Next Night" is slow, dreary, repetitive, and has almost no singing (Russell is talking through most of the song, apart from occasional sung background parts or snippets of melody here and there), but I feel like it deserves some notice for the way it depicts an angry drunk who won't take responsibility for his behavior. The lyrics describe a guy who keeps getting in fights over his woman, and who keeps offering pathetic excuses like "How can I let it go if I can't control myself?/How can I let it go if I cannot help myself?" in the context of repetition that strikes me every time as a depiction of double vision and not seeing the world clearly. Musically, it's mostly atmospheric piano, but there's a lovely and sad harpsichord bit in the middle, and the emergence of the grumbly guitars near the end always strongly suggest to me an especially bad episode coming on. It's not the most interesting track in the world, but I like it a lot more than I once did.

"(Baby Baby) Can I Invade Your Country?" was, unfortunately, the victim of some sort of weird censorship, the details of which I don't actually know, and the version that ultimately made the album feels neutered. The version that made it onto a B-side contains lyrics that are surprisingly political and pretty pointed in their silliness, but the album version removes those lyrics and replaces them with Russell reciting the first verse of "The Star-Spangled Banner" instead. Oh well, even without the better verses, the chorus is delightful, and the interaction between the guitars and the bouncy synths make the song fly by. Closing out the first half is "Rock, Rock, Rock," and while it struck me as really stupid on the first few listens (namely because the idea of Russell Mael singing "I will rock, rock, rock/Like a mother, like a mother, like a mother, like a mother" in a "Rhythm Thief" manner struck me as too silly even for Sparks), I came around to it once I made an effort to pay attention to the whole song. Basically, the song is about somebody whose significant other is threatening to leave him because he shows no passion in his life, and in his pleading to keep them from going he promises to cast away the soft musical passages of his life and to rock, rock, rock instead. There's a bit more to the song than just the lyrics and the big bombast of the music (for instance, I find the little vocal echoes from time to time intriguing), but those are ultimately the focus, and they're good enough for me.

The second half of the album is really strong, apart from the three-minute waltz-like throwaway of "There's No Such Thing as Aliens," which doesn't so much commit the crime of annoying me as it just makes almost no impression no matter how many times I hear it. "Metaphor" would be good if it only featured its marvelous hook of "Chicks, dig, dig, d-i-g, dig, dig metaphors," but it also features some fun call-and-response between Russell and other Russells, and the balance between keyboards and guitars perfect. Plus, "Use them wisely/Use them well/And you'll never know the hell of loneliness" is just such an insightful lyric. "Waterproof" is about somebody with a peculiar dual immunity to getting wet from rain and also from being swayed by tears, and the song's build from a playful duet between a solo Russell and Ron into an anthemic army of Russells over Ron's keyboards and guitars is a joy to behold. Plus it has those jazzy breaks of Russell semi-singing "The skies are starting to cloud up/But that won't slow me down ..." between the various iterations of the great verse and chorus melodies, and silly lines like "Completely dry/Dry as a Navajo in August ..." and "I see you crying but I'm not buying your Meryl Streep mimicry ..." scattered throughout. And "Here Kitty," while it probably would have been done in a way that would have annoyed me to death had it been written during the LB sessions, ends up as a great exercise in layering different Russell vocal lines on top of each other, and this is a track that I'd love to hear done by a college glee club or something along those lines.

The album concludes with "As I Sit Down to Play the Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral," which is easily one of the longest and most intricate tracks in the Sparks catalogue. The song starts with about 90 seconds of different variations on the phrase "Bye bye bye my baby/Now it's time time time for me to go to/Work work Work/So you might want to work your way from here" over guitars and keyboards with odd tones, before moving into a song centered around a nagging upwards organ lick over which Russell sings lyrics devoted to a fascinating premise. Basically, the organist (a) is irritated that the bulk of his audience cares more about God than about his performance, and (b) is totally trying to use his organ playing to pick up girls, targeting those who are inside to get out of the rain more than for any religious purpose. The music is full of "Hallelujah!" chants and sung "La, la ..." parts to that upwards organ lick (the use of the repeated "I believe!" bits sandwiched around the "La, la" parts during a part of the song that is the organist getting lucky amuses me to no end) and lots of entertaining bombast that all make this into a great ending.

In the end, I can't really figure out whether I like this album more or less than LB, but the difference either way would only be the tiniest bit, so it doesn't really matter. There are definitely enough small things (I didn't really emphasize the repetition much in this review, but there are small moments where repeated bits get on my nerves) to keep this from a higher grade, but regardless of exact grade, this album firmly established the Sparks comeback as legitimate, and this makes the album an important inclusion to a Sparks collection. Or, for that matter, a rock rock rock collection.

 Lil' Beethoven by SPARKS album cover Studio Album, 2002
4.31 | 37 ratings

Lil' Beethoven
Sparks Crossover Prog

Review by tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer

4 stars It's safe to say that nobody saw this coming, and with good reason. Sparks' emergence from the depths of 80s oblivion was a nice story, but the way it happened (with the band embracing contemporary techno) wasn't especially surprising, and their output, while good, was hardly on par with their best work. Plus, the group's mini-resurgence could just as easily have been attributed to scaling back its workload as to any significant increase in creativity; putting aside Plagiarism (which was just rearrangements of old material), the band's last two albums had each come after a break of six years. Yes, both Gratuitous Sax and Balls had some real gems, but on the whole the band's grand synth pop experiment (now seven albums long if we're counting Plagiarism) had really run out of steam. At this point was going to take a major change of direction to change the band's fortunes.

I really don't know exactly how the inspiration for this album's approach, which I will dub "chamber techno" even though not everything falls under that categorization, came to Russell and Ron, but the idea must have come to them in a pretty short span of time, because they started recording this album about a year after releasing Balls and released it about a year after that. To the extent that this album (at least the first seven tracks; the eighth and ninth tracks need to be categorized on their own) has a formula, it can be described as following this pattern:

1. The music is repetitive in a manner that best emulates techno.

2. The instrumentation is stripped down to a minimal number of keyboard parts, often using "orchestral" synth patches.

3. Percussion is minimal, mostly consisting of an occasional tympani, but certainly not used to generate the primary rhythmic pulse.

4. The primary rhythmic pulse, in turn, comes from the vocals, which tend to grab onto a small number of phrases and repeat them over and over, with occasional vocal asides.

In the first seven tracks, only one, "What Are All These Bands So Angry About?" breaks from the formula significantly (no techno here, though it does have big booming tympanies). The song is essentially an old man rant against kids and their music these days, but it's done in an impressive manner, correctly noting that bands can out-anger and out-profane each other only so much, and there's something oddly piercing about the "Some might have done what we'll never do" line (which comes after namechecking several great musicians) near the end. The formula itself, then, is forcefully introduced with the opening "The Rhythm Thief," which begins with Russell saying "I am the rhythm thief/Say goodbye to the beat/I am the rhythm thief/auf wiedersehen to the beat" over quiet synth strings and quiet repetitions of the phrase "rhythm rhythm rhythm thief," before exploding into a bombastic chorus of "OH NO! WHERE DID THE GROOVE GO, WHERE DID THE GROOVE GO, WHERE DID THE GROOVE GO? Lights out, Ibiza, WHERE DID THE GROOVE GO, WHERE DID THE GROOVE GO, WHERE DID THE GROOVE GO??" over very bombastic parts. The ensuing section is every bit as interesting, mostly because the main rhythmic strike comes from "back" in the phrase "You'll never get it back, you'll never get it back/The rhythm thief has got it and you'll never get it back ..." but also because of the busy bombast coming from Ron's keys underneath. Over the rest of the song, these two main sections are repeated over and over, in whole and in part, until the final conclusion where the introduction, the chorus, and the "never get it back" sections are largely smooshed together. To be honest, I think that Ron missed a chance for an extra level of subversion (especially given the album title) which could have come if he'd bothered to put the sections into sonata form (which could be done with a little bit of reordering), but overall the song is a magnificent statement, not only as a tone-setter for the album but also a full rejection of its techno-pop past.

"How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall" (or, as Russell pronounces it in a way that drives my wife batty, 'Car-NEG-ie Hall') is another clear instance of the formula, except for the fact that orchestral patches are pushed aside (the more bombastic moments don't pretend to be anything other than synths) and that the keyboards are set to sound like a grand piano. The lyrics and rhythmic drive are based around Russell incessantly reciting the setup and punchine of the old "How do I get to Carnegie Hall"/"Practice, man, practice!" joke, with a smattering of other lyrics and occasional other looped bits, like the word "Steinway" or "bravo!" over rhythmic applause and the busy piano. Amidst all of the main chunks of the song, though, I've always found the quiet "still there is no sign of you" line as the most impactful bit.

After "What Are All These Bands So Angry About?" comes "I Married Myself," a quieter song that I used to skip whenever I listened to the album, and while I still don't quite love it, I like it more than I used to. I would best describe it as "variations on a theme from two snippets of an unwritten Wings ballad," and I don't love the bits that are repeated (not to mention that tapping into the same general idea as "Falling in Love With Myself Again" irritates me a little), I've come to like them. Much better is "Ride 'Em Cowboy," which is propelled by electric piano (with occasional synth strings and synth harpsichord draped on top) while Russell sings all sorts of brief snippets hinting at stories of going from bad to worse (sample lines: "From wowed to bored/Ole, then gored").

After "Cowboy" is a track that, along with "The Rhythm Thief," best displays the potential of this album to take simple ideas, repeated incessantly, and make them into something great. "My Baby's Taking Me Home" consists of Russell singing the chorus well over 100 times, with the music building from a simple set of keyboard lines into a thickly arranged explosion (complete with snippets of actual guitar and actual drums), and with a fascinating mid-song monologue that fits in perfectly with the atmosphere of the rest. The song taps into the same kind of anthemic simplicity that used to fuel songs like "Hey Jude" or "Isn't it a Pity," and while that won't win anybody over who hates those songs, it works just fine for somebody like me who loves them. On the other side of the spectrum, though, comes the best example of the album's potential to be annoying as hell. "Your Call is Very Important to Us, Please Hold" is amusing for about 30 seconds, with the opening "I'm getting mixed signals, mixed signals, mixed mixed mixed signals" bit and the first glimpse of the main portion of the song, but the rest of the song makes for one of the longest and most excruciating 4:11 experiences I can think of. I guess that part of the point of the song was to call up the same level of stress and aggravation that comes from being put on hold for a long time, and I respect the effort, but I feel like they went too far. Once again, Sparks shows its ability to mess up in even the best of circumstances.

"Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls" sets the situation right, though. At first it sounds like it's going to be a lovely ballad, albeit with an amusingly bitter title, but then a piercing "wah wah wah wah" from multiple Russells pops up, and then there's a lumbering metallic guitar sound (from Faith No More guitarist Dean Menta), and then suddenly the track becomes the first heavy-guitar-based Sparks song since Big Beat (not counting Plagiarism). The lyrics primarily consist of a really long rant about gold-digging women ending up with ugly rich guys, and while the pedantic detail it goes into could be considered obnoxious, the combination of the rant with pseudo-tough guitars, pounding drums and repeated interjections like "it ain't done with smoke and mirrors!" (as well as repeated instances of the "wah wah wah wah" bit) manages to make the track rather intriguing. It sounds like nothing else on the album to this point, and while the track is a little ridiculous, the contrast between it and the rest of the album is enough to make it a crucial piece of the album.

Finally, the closing vaudeville-inspired "Suburban Homeboy" has pretty much nothing in common with the rest of the album, and it could be considered an out-of-place novelty piece if somebody felt so inclined, but I love it to pieces anyway. The lyrics take on an easy target, namely rich white teenagers (and, in the last verse, rich white graduates of fancy schools) who pretend to be black and ghetto, and while there's a bit of a "shooting fish in a barrel" to it, the lyrics are so silly that I can forgive the relatively low degree of difficulty. "I am a suburban homeboy with a suburban ho right by my side/I am a suburban homeboy and I say 'yo dawg' to my detailing guy." If I'm stupid for liking this song so much, so be it.

Overall, I like this album about as much as I can like any album without quite loving it. After all, it does have a song ("Your Call...") that I really don't like much, and another song ("I Married Myself") that I tend to find a little boring. Plus, as much as I really respect and admire the cleverness needed to take an approach completely unlike any I've ever heard elsewhere, I admit that I sometimes catch myself thinking that the songs go too long, even if their excessive length is part of the point. Honestly, though, these are just nit-picks. If it's not quite on the level of the debut or Kimono, then it's very close, and every Sparks fan (who somehow doesn't know this album already) needs to own this. Let's hear it for the one of the all-time great comeback albums, too.

 Balls by SPARKS album cover Studio Album, 2000
2.86 | 9 ratings

Sparks Crossover Prog

Review by tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer

3 stars In some ways, this is essentially the same kind of techno-laced keyboard dance pop as Gratuitous Sax, only without an obvious hit. While nothing on here has remotely the same kind of impact as "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'?" does, though, I would nonetheless have to say that the bulk of this album easily stands up to the balance of that album. The group actually sounds fairly at home with the techno aspects this time around, as opposed to using them in the background in songs that could just as easily do without them, and there's often an aggression and noisy edge to much of this album that there really wasn't on Gratuitous Sax. Of course, the kind of music they're making still largely sounds a bit foreign to my sensibilities, and it's hard for me to really love this album, but I definitely like this album plenty.

The opening title track establishes the more aggressive sound immediately, packing all sorts of noisy keyboard parts into the space above the busy percussion, while Russell speaks interesting lyrics interspersed with a chorus that makes prominent use of the title ("Balls! All you need are/Balls! To succeed are/Balls! All you need are ..."). The following "More Than a Sex Machine" is just as good, largely because of the silliness of Ron Mael writing lyrics around this title, but largely because of the moderately clever layering of the various upbeat keyboard parts underneath it. From there, the album goes in a gentler direction with "Scheherazade," largely based around an incessant synth noise that inevitably reminds me of Pac-man, but mostly featuring a softer mix of keyboards over which Russell sings a brief summary of "1001 Nights" (I have to admit that I find it stupidly funny that the last line is "I won't kill you").

Over the rest of the album, a few of the tracks ("Aeroflot," "Bullet Train," "It's Educational") feature the kind of up-tempo noisy techno pop of "Balls" and "More Than a Sex Machine" (not quite up to the standards of those tracks, but I don't skip them either) but the rest is more subdued and more prone to allowing for interesting musical ideas to develop. "The Calm Before the Storm" is up-tempo (aside from the opening slower bit) and based around some really cheesy keyboard tones, but I like the way the verses are clearly meant to be cheerier than the chorus, and I really like the part where three Russells start singing different parts with each other (plus, given that they're from 2000, the lyrics are oddly prescient). "How to Get Your Ass Kicked" and "It's a Knockoff" (which was featured in the soundtrack of a Jean- Claude Van Damme movie) are both mid-tempo pop-ballads with clever lyrics that, with different arrangements, could have fit in well in many eras of the group. "Irreplacable" starts of potentially sounding like it will be another gentle song (possibly too much so), but then a new, darker melody in a much faster tempo bursts in, and the track does a great job of merging those two main ideas in its remainder (and the part where a piano part emerges to play that darker melody is probably the best stretch on the album). And finally, "The Angels" (which features a repeated use of profanity so out of place that it could easily be Ween) has a magnificent vocal part from Russell (especially in the way he soars in the "Me, I take it in stride/Me, I know I'm on the right side this time"), with a terrific balance of keyboards and even some clearly discernable guitars, and it lets the album end on a very high note.

No, this isn't one of my favorite Sparks albums, but as a follow-up to Gratuitous Sax it's a welcome one. Here's the thing: the last two times (before GS) that the group had successfully found a new direction for presenting keyboard-heavy dance-pop (No. 1 in Heaven and In Outer Space), the following albums (Terminal Jive and Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat) had been massive disappointments. Maybe the group had managed to stagnate a bit (after all, they were guys in their 50s doing techno ...), but they'd stagnated at an acceptable level. This album isn't thought of as well as the ones that bookend it, but if somebody likes GS they should definitely give this a shot.

 Plagiarism by SPARKS album cover Boxset/Compilation, 1997
3.00 | 6 ratings

Sparks Crossover Prog

Review by tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer

3 stars An interesting marking-time album, but a marking-time album nonetheless, and a bit of a wasted opportunity. As suggested by the title, this is a self-covers album, offering the chance to revist songs from various points in the band's career. Tony Visconti returns to the fold, and he provides choral and orchestral arrangements for several songs, including "Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat," "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us" (which also has an additional verse) "When Do I Get To Sing 'My Way'?," "Change" (which sounds hilarious when given a marching band treatment), "Something For The Girl With Everything," "Propaganda" (which is expanded into a full 2:35 song and loses some of its charm), "The Number One Song In Heaven" and "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth." Out of these, the most revelatory version is definitely the opening "Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat," where the strings provide an oomph that the original synths could only hint at. There are also rearrangements of "Funny Face" (slowed down and given an acoustic guitar, to poignant effect), "Angst in My Pants" (not much more interesting than before), "Popularity" (similar to the original but with updated keyboard sounds), "Beat the Clock" (not that different from before), "Big Brass Ring" (which sounds much better in this 4:20 version than it did as a throwaway bonus track on Interior Design), "Amateur Hour" (stripping away the glam pop versions and replacing it with more standard synth pop), and "When I'm With You" (essentially the same as before). There are also additional covers of "This Town..." and "Something for the Girl With Everything" which feature backing by Faith No More, and it's definitely a jarring experience to hear the juxtaposition of Russell's vocals with those of Mike Patton. Also, in addition to the orchestrated cover of "The Number One Song in Heaven" (which covers the first half of the original), there's also a separate cover of part two of the same song.

So ok, it's a good effort, and one's expectations need to be tempered with a self-covers album, but I feel like the group could have done a little more with this project. In the 19 tracks (18 if you exclude "Orchestral Collage," which is basically just an extended introduction to the orchestrated "Number One Song in Heaven"), there are three tracks from Kimono (the two "This Town" versions plus "Amateur Hour"), four tracks from Propaganda (two versions of "Something for the Girl With Everything," one each of "Propaganda" and "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth") and three tracks from No. 1 In Heaven ("Beat the Clock" and the two parts of "Number One Song in Heaven"). This left a total of eight tracks for the rest of the band's career, one of which is devoted to "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'?" (which was only three years old) and seven of which came from the 80s (and only some of which sound drastically different). These choices strike me as way too cautious on the whole; maybe this was the kind of material that the band was explicitly trying to emphasize as its legacy at this point, but I wish they'd been willing to poke into other corners of their past. Still, it's an enjoyable listen in the moment, and while it appears to be out of print at this writing, it's available for cheap in legal download form, and it's worth hearing for any fan of the band.

 Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins by SPARKS album cover Studio Album, 1994
3.33 | 16 ratings

Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins
Sparks Crossover Prog

Review by tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer

3 stars It took a break of six years (during which the brothers were trying to make a Japanese comic strip into a movie) to make it happen, but the brothers finally made another good album. There are some reasons to poo-poo it, of course; the sound makes extensive use of contemporary techno sounds and beats, and on my first few listens I had trouble getting beyond the notion of the duo (it's pointless to call them a 'band' at this point; the brothers handled all of the music and the bulk of the production) as a couple of old men trying to grab onto a music scene that had passed them by (kinda like with David Bowie and Earthling a few years later). This isn't, by and large, my kind of music, and I almost certainly would never find my way to an album like this if it wasn't made by a group with whom I was already familiar. And yet, for whatever issues I might have with the underpinning production choices, I can't help but enjoy a good chunk of this album. It's not on the same level as Heaven (the easy comparison point for this album), but it's about as good as In Outer Space (a less obvious but equally valid comparison point).

It definitely helps that the album's first "real" song (I'm disregarding the silly jokes "Gratuitous Sax" and "Senseless Violins" which open and close the album, even if they're a delight and I wouldn't want to hear the album without them) is the group's best since the 70s. "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'?" is a MONSTER of a great pop anthem, with lyrics about the regret that comes from always doing things the way other people expect of you, great keyboard parts on top of the generic techno beat, and a set of glorious melodies. I actually heard this song long after I heard most great Sparks songs, largely because its reputation was so impeccable that I wanted to reserve one last potential treat from the band for as long as I reasonably could, and it's every bit as great as I'd have hoped at the time. If you like Sparks and haven't heard this song yet, please please please find it and listen to it.

It's very easy, after the great opening track, to frame this album as one great track plus a bunch of techno blah, but that's not really fair. What strikes me most about this album is that, once I get beyond the techno aspects, I feel like I can sense the band's actual personality for the first time in a while. The lyrics tend to be genuinely clever and goofy, there's a lot of fun had with layering Russell's vocals, there are some ridiculous (in a good way) faux-operatic moments, there's some variety in the keyboard sounds, and there are clever and unconventional twists in the chord sequences. In other words, I feel like I'm actually listening to a Sparks album. "I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car" (a lot of monologue interspersed with singing the title in the most overly dramatic way imaginable) and "Tsui Hark" (a drone with sporadic speaking by film director Tsui Hark) largely pass me by (though I kinda like some of the angrier beats in the former), but the rest is delightful. It doesn't get quite the same praise as "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'?" does, and the idea of Russell Mael rapping is a little unsettling, but the chorus of "(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing" is glorious, and it helps me like the song almost as much as the more famous track that comes before it. I'm also quite the fan of "Now That I Own the BBC" (a lyrical throwback to the absurdity of "I Bought the Mississippi River" with a very playful tune) and "Let's Go Surfing" (with some terrible keyboard sounds playing beautiful keyboard parts while Russell sings lyrics that end up sounding majestic in context).

The other tracks are good enough. "Frankly, Scarlett, I Don't Give a Damn" and "Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil" are each mournful drones, the former featuring a nagging keyboard line echoed by Russell's "doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo" and the latter featuring an atmospheric-as-hell combination of Russell's normal voice and falsetto in the "chorus." Finally, "The Ghost of Liberace" is dinky silliness, but it's dinky silliness in a way that takes me back to the band's peak era, especially in the goofy chorus line of "The ghost of Liberace still has that mystique/If he were alive he'd now be at his peak" or in the "Sometimes he blinds the drivers with his shiny suits/They see that smile and they laugh at him, he don't shoot" couplet.

It would have been very easy for the band to just give up after their flameout in the 80s, but I'm glad they had the desire and material for a comeback. If you're not the kind who minds the kind of production approach they took, you might even love this album, but all Sparks fans should definitely hear it.

Thanks to chris s for the artist addition. and to Quinino for the last updates

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