Sparks

Sparks (formed in 1968) are one of those cult bands that don't really get mentioned much outside the Internet these days, though they've been an undeniable influence on numerous bands since. Which is odd, because like XTC, they were talented pop songwriters that ought to have scored a number of top 40 hits, but wound up being a little too clever for their own good. Unlike XTC, they were never afraid to jump trends, and always remained a dance band, for better or worse. It's hard to generalize about a band whose career has spanned five decades, but they've mostly built their brand around the falsetto of Russell Mael and older brother Ron's incessant carnival keyboard lines, which combine to create some of the most memorable songs of their era. Sparks have always occupied a unique spot on the pop spectrum, as they toe the line between New Wave geniuses and novelty act quite well, and are one of the few bands for which the lyrics alone are worth the cost of an album. They do a lot of character studies like the Kinks but focus anywhere but the "everyman", rather on those with strange obsessions and bizarre fetishes. It's all massively entertaining (and sometimes in oddly bad taste), as Ron is an expert when it comes to metaphors and turns of phrase, and it often takes several listens to figure out what a song is truly about. As for the albums themselves, I don't think it's necessarily too radical to suggest that most of their best material came out of the 70's, as much of the music from that era laid somewhere between glam, power pop, and New Wave, and still holds up well today. Then they hooked up with Giorgio Moroder and started making dance albums, and by the time of 1984's Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat it seemed as though the band had forever lost its way. Strangely, their commercial peak in their homeland came a couple years later, and after slowing down their release schedule (with three albums in about a decade and a half), they had a huge artistic comeback starting with 2002's Li'l Beethoven, which finally put them back in the good graces of critics everywhere.


Halfnelson Demo Tape (1969?)
I'm tracking this down; I've heard it was called A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing before they actually named an album that. Most of this material was not re-recorded.

Sparks (1971)
Originally conceived as "Halfnelson", the band started with another set of brothers, the Mankeys, and went on to put out something that sounded like nothing else in 1971. This is not quite "New Wave", but along with Roxy Music's debut, it was certainly the first signal of what was to come. It doesn't quite sound like the rest of the Sparks' albums, as there's a big British Invasion/Beach Boys influence, but it's too tongue-in-cheek to fit in with those kinds of bands. Well, "Fletcher Honorama" is colorful and melancholy enough to fit in on Pet Sounds, but much of this raises a few eyebrows. "Fa La Fa Lee" is catchy and upbeat enough to be a Monkees tune, but the lyrics are a lament from a man who wants to fuck his own sister, so perhaps its better off here. Otherwise, there's "Roger", with drumsticks played on water, and the swinging "Simple Ballet", both of which show how accomplished the Maels were even in their early phase. Overall, the first side or so (up to "Simple Ballet") is pretty great, but the album proceeds to take a dump after that, as the Mankeys write a few tracks, one of which is purposely horrible ("Biology 2"). The album redeems itself by bringing back the guitars for "No More Mister Nice Guys", a great look into the future of Sparks. This isn't often mentioned and was sadly overlooked at the time (outside of "Wonder Girl", which somehow hit #1 on the Alabama regional chart). If Sparks had broken up in 1973, this may have become a fringe classic in its own right, as it's full of quirks and clearly ahead of its time. Produced by Todd Rundgren, who brings his treble-heavy solo sound to most of the album tracks.

A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing (1972)
This is a good pop album that's recommended to fans of the debut, but may be a little off-putting otherwise. It's not exactly clear what type of band these guys were trying to be - there's a glam rock attitude throughout the album, but they often cross over to Cabaret or even Vaudeville-type styles, and in the end the song that rocks the hardest is a cover of "Do-Re-Mi". Although Sparks certainly have the talent to be a good guitar-driven pop band, Ron's keyboards usually take center stage, and his organ sounds are the biggest point of interest on the album. I think the Mael's were more interested in what you would call "goofy pop"; that is, pop songs that have whistling during the chorus ("Girl From Germany"), or that literally spell out the title as a cheerleading chant ("Beaver O'Lindy"). Most of this is pretty agreeable and it makes for a good pop album, but after hearing the way the rubbery bass and dual guitar riffs stand out on the galloping closer ("Whippings and Apologies") you wonder why they didn't play like this more often (and indeed, for their next two albums they would). There are definitely some major successes on here - "Girl From Germany" is a great single, "Underground" is an inspired pop song with great harmonies, and the slow burner "Moon Over Kentucky" is one of Russell's best vocal performances. But sometimes it's hard to get a grasp on what they're doing - "The Louvre" has about ten distinct parts condensed into a five minute song; it's impressive but generally unmemorable. In contrast, the intentionally droll "Nothing's Sacred" is memorable, but it begs the question of whether or not Russell was intentionally trying to annoy his audience. Once again, one of the Mankeys writes a song ("Angus Desire") but it's only really a half-effort with claustrophobia-inducing production. It's definitely a mixed bag, but there's more good than bad, and besides, it's hard to discredit an album when one of the songs is about meeting people by deliberately getting into car wrecks ("Here Comes Bob").

Kimono My House (1974)
The brothers dump the rest of the band and move to England to create one of the best (and certainly one of the most fun) records of the decade. I hate to be a pitchman for this album, so don't take my word for it; track down a few songs on it and see for yourself. Ron spins out a bunch of catchy, fun, and driving melodies, backed by a fantastic (new) band. It is dance-pop on the surface, but it's still dense - the backing musicians don't sound like session players, and they are to this album what the Attractions were to This Year's Model, giving the record a heavy and full sound that doesn't confine it to any one era. However, coming out in '74, this record was a big influence on quite a few (most notably Queen, whose Night at the Opera album apes a few elements of this one), and nearly started an era of its own.

What about the songs? The bombastic power-pop of "This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us" was good enough to hit #2 in the UK, but listening through this album again, practically everything could have been considered for a single. Songs like "Amateur Hour" and "Here in Heaven" are so pitch-perfect and addictive that it's surprising that they weren't hits - along with Big Star's first two albums, this is one of the best pop albums that somehow never made it big. Again, most of the songs take on different guises, but whether it's primarily a waltz ("Falling in Love With Myself Again"), a giddy dance tune ("Talent is an Asset"), or a straightforward rocker ("Complaints"), everything seems to bleed over into its own genre, and the result mixes so many sounds that it's hard to classify. It's basically Roxy Music with a huge grin, as the songs are both upbeat and sophisticated. Oh, and the lyrics are clever too. The CD has two bonus tracks, one of which, "Lost and Found", is about as good as anything else here, so don't skip it. Highly recommended.

Propaganda (1974)
I think most music fans who become obsessed with an album always wonder why the band couldn't just "come out with another one like that" when the follow-up falls short. Well, Sparks did come out with another album like that, and in the same year no less. This is basically Kimono my House Again - the songs are even more upbeat and the ballads more focused, but the sound is basically the same. Okay, so it's not *quite* as good, meaning this is the one you should get second, but much of this is essential - "At Home, At Work, At Play" is the perfect glam rock song, "Thanks But No Thanks" is one of their catchiest yet, and "Something For the Girl With Everything" summarizes everything great about Sparks in around two and a half minutes. Sure, maybe some of the tracks near the end are a little gimmicky ("Who Don't Like Kids?", which regardless features quite an addictive riff), but that's part of their shtick anyhow, so give 'em a break - besides, when you're writing songs this good, you pretty much have license to do with them whatever you want. Overall, I think more of the groups' personality comes out on this one, which may or may not be a good thing - there's a lot of cleverness for the sake of cleverness, and some of this stuff is catchy to the point of obnoxiousness. But that's what Sparks does best, and if you're not smiling a minute or so in, this really isn't the group for you.

Indiscreet (1975)
The word "indiscreet" is a pretty good adjective for Sparks' sound, but sometimes it's not a good thing - this is definitely a good album, but it's not quite up to their past standards. Okay, so maybe "Happy Hunting Ground" is a fast-paced trip through glam-rock heaven that throws in a ridiculous amount of hooks in a short time, but besides that, each track takes on a different identity. So instead of the tracks smashing a few genres into one, they give each genre their own separate track, meaning the songs themselves can sometimes really only be as good as the style they imitate. A few of them are great - the marching tunes "Get in the Swing" and "Hospitality on Parade" are a great deal of fun, but there are just a few too many homages to pre-war styles and other such bad ideas to make this a great album. It's just inconsistent; most of the ideas work, some hard to forget ("Pineapple"), some a look into the future sound of Sparks ("In the Future", for real) and some surprisingly heartfelt ("Miss the Start, Miss the End"). The problem is that the songs don't really hit you over the head the way they did on the last two albums ("Happy Hunting Ground" excepted). Certainly the most varied Sparks album in both style and quality, so don't expect a complete knockout. But it's not the plane wreck shown on the cover - no Sparks fan should be without the better material here. Plus, there is a song called "Tits".

Big Beat (1976)
A return to a more upbeat and punchy sound; this time the keyboards are dropped in favor of more guitars and louder drums (hence the title), with Ron playing a piano somewhere way in the background. It's a change in instrumentation, but not exactly a change in sound - the songs are about as catchy and fast-paced as they've always been, and there's another pile of crunchy riffs to sink your teeth into. The economic, straightforward arrangements remind me a bit of the first few Cars albums - hell, Russ is even singing in his normal voice this time around! The lyrics really stand out here, as Ron displays even more misogyny than usual ("You fell for me/I fell for you/You think I'm great/I think you're good"). There's even a song that encourages men to get rid of their wives as soon as their looks start to fade! That's even tame next to "White Women" - "What's good enough for Adam/Is good enough for me/I'm awfully glad we got 'em/They're easy to see/As long as they're white"? And yet, you'll no doubt be singing them in short order, especially when the songs are this much fun. "I Like Girls" is also a highlight (do you really, Ron?), which adds a horn section to give it a marching band sound. What's weird is that this is Sparks' 6th album, yet it has the focused and excitable sound you'd expect from of a debut, almost sounding as though the Maels were trying to "reboot" the band. However, by the second side this starts to work against them, as compared to the large amount of genre-hopping on Indiscreet, this is oddly one-note, and with Ron so far in the background, it's evident that they're not really playing to their strengths. This is definitely a good album in the end; there's hardly a weak cut, and it's very easy to like. But if it's your first Sparks album, you'll probably wonder what all the fuss was about.

Introducing Sparks (1977)
This one was unavailable for a long time on CD, and all I ever heard of it was the allegation that Columbia Records ruined it by attempting to commercialize their sound. There's kind of a point there, but keep in mind this is still a band that would happily name their 7th record Introducing Sparks, and the lyrics are just as sharp as ever. If Columbia did affect the album, it was probably by giving it the "AM Gold" sound, as this was the era where radio programmers assumed that what listeners really wanted to hear wasn't something new or exciting, but rather songs that were considered "oldies" even back then. There's a very distinct "early 60's" sound here, with a bunch of backup singers and a lack of even the slightest amount of experimentation. Only one of the songs plays like an explicit homage to the Beach Boys ("Over the Summer", which is about as good an imitation as you can do), but the entire album sounds like a big tribute to them. This makes it something like Ween's country album, which pissed off the fans who were expecting something different, but in retrospect actually holds up quite well. All 9 of these songs land in some way, and a few of them should appeal to any Sparks fan - "Occupation" and "Forever Young" sound like they could have been Kimono-era singles if they beefed up the arrangements, and "Goofing Off" is the same kind of giddy fun that all their best tunes are. Like Big Beat, the arrangements veer toward a more traditional guitar/bass/drums set-up, with piano used mostly as a secondary instrument ("Goofing Off" aside), and there are no synthesizers at all. You may expect something a little more (considering there are seventeen session men credited here), but the sunny, bright-eyed vocals are the focal point, and nobody tries to do all that much (the only real ambitious song is the closing "Those Mysteries", which actually is haunting). It's hard to see anyone hating this, as it really is witty and likeable, if not something you'll want to hear often. Once you get over the AM-lite sound, it really does have many of the hallmarks of the other 70’s Sparks records. I'm glad they re-released it.

No. 1 in Heaven (1979)
I'm not sure if Sparks felt they were floundering or were just frustrated by their lack of commercial success, but they decided to hook up with famed electro-disco producer Giorgio Moroder, who was the man behind Donna Summer's revolutionary "I Feel Love". Actually, this wasn't such a bad idea since Russell sings like a girl anyway, and Moroder was a visionary who was pretty much ahead of everyone in the late 70's. Stripping out all the 'real' instruments in favor of drum machines, electronic blips, and fake choir noises, the duo created a commercially successful disco album that briefly put them back in the public eye. At only six tracks spanning less than 34 minutes, there's not much room for error, but luckily they don't make any - it's got such a glossy and robotic sheen to it that it's hard to point out any flaws in the sound. If you're already a fan of Moroder, this may be familiar to you. "Tryouts For The Human Race" is the most addictive disco tune I've ever heard, and certainly the best song ever written about sperm. I heard someone drop it in a DJ set in 2010 and it was massive; there's no substitute for a killer track with a jaw-dropping chorus like this one. Likewise, "Beat the Clock" was a forward-looking dance hit, and the title track was a big single as well, switching from a dreamy synthesized ballad ("This is the number one song in heaven/Why are you hearing it now, you ask?/Maybe you're closer to here than you imagine") to a fast paced four-on-the-floor shuffle. "Written of course, by the mightiest hand". And the other tracks don't slouch either - in particular, "La Dolce Vita" could have been a dance-floor smash. While it is different than their other albums, the dance aesthetic was always an important one in the Maelroom, so this is more of a reframing than anything. That is, if you liked Big Beat, you will probably enjoy this as well, even though those albums have not a single instrument in common (also, fans of Moroder's From Here to Eternity should probably check this out). Even if you dislike the sound, at least Ron's dry and postmodern sense of humor is still there - "My Other Voice" is actually about the vocoder used in the song! So score another success for Sparks, but the world of electro-disco and synthpop would prove to be a slippery slope...

Terminal Jive (1980)
One common discussion among record collectors is “which albums would be better off as EPs?” The idea is that some albums are really great in spots and would make an excellent 5-track, 20-minute release, rather than an inconsistent full-length. If you rephrased the question to “which albums would be better off as just one song?”, then I believe we have a winner here. “When I’m With You” is catchy, well-written, and features a neat wonky disco bass line, and it was deservedly a moderate hit. It’s far and away the best and most developed track here. It's so good that even the instrumental reprise winds up working! But this is 1980 and things were starting to turn for the group. Just as Sparks predicted the coming of glam-rock and New Wave, they also predicted the coming of cheap, glossy, and empty synth-pop...guess you can't have a winner every time. The sound is sparse, with keyboards in front, drums forced in the back, bass completely synthesized, and processed, metallic guitar riffs to keep rhythm. If that sounds bland on paper, wait until you hear the actual songs here. Side 2 does feature a pair of passable tunes (“Young Girls”, and “Noisy Boys”) that wouldn’t sound too out of place on Big Beat if they were faster and used more guitar. But that just upgrades the album from terrible to merely bad. It seems to be a lack of effort on Sparks’ part - Russell doesn’t exert himself, and there’s a dreary tone that permeates through most of the album. This is Sparks on auto-pilot – not unlistenable or unfriendly, just bland and lethargic. But “When I’m With You” still is a great tune… Produced half by Moroder (who left the band after this; you don't really feel his touch here as on the last album) and half by Harold Faltermeyer (of “Axel F” fame).

Whomp That Sucker (1981)
With both Moroder and Faltermeyer gone, Sparks decided to strike out on their own, and presented themselves as a couple of weirdos who only came to this planet to annoy the hell out of everybody. To accomplish this goal, they use a lot of Russ's high pitched and repetitive vocals ("That's Not Nastassia", which practically begs you to shut it off) along with Ron's wacky keyboards and production effects ("Tips for Teens", "The Willys", which has a hilarious bass tone that goes "bwoommp" over and over and over again). Even the hooks this time are less rock and more like something you’d hear at the carnival. That being said, they do actually sound a good deal like they did on their first two albums, and it’s kind of refreshing to hear them as a (more or less) standard glam-rock band. While a lot of this comes off as gimmicky, they still can roll out good, punchy tunes with big hooks ("Upstairs", "I Married a Martian"). If nothing else it's entertaining, and the last song is so immediately catchy that it'll be stuck in your head before it's even over ("Wacky Women"). To say it’s over the top is kind of an understatement – try having a conversation while "The Willys" is playing in the background - you won’t even be able to make it past the first line (“It started on a Tuesday!/It must have been that lunchmeat”). Yeah, it’s obnoxious ("they call it the WIIIILLYYS!"), but it's certainly not boring. Actually, this would be a pretty damn good album if they had spent a little more on the production; it sounds muffled, as though it was recorded in a closet. The album's material is so lightweight that it's not really a big concern, and in the end the only thing that matters is that this album is a great deal of fun. If you could really get the essence of Sparks down to its bare essentials, this would be it; you'll enjoy this album in spite of yourself, not because you actually like songs that go "bwoommp". This is a solid rebound.

Angst in my Pants (1982)
Another good effort of the post-Moroder era, with a more serious tone than Whomp That Sucker (which isn't saying much). Most of this is straightforward synth rock, sometimes without the grin ("Sherlock Holmes", which is actually a pointed song about not living up to expectations, or the gripping "Nicotina" which explores cigarette addiction). Essentially this is the other side of the last album - same type of music, but less clowning (outside of "Mickey Mouse", which really is just a song about the Disney character). Musically, it's dominated by dance beats (most of which are identical) and keyboards, which work fine when the vocal hooks are good. In particular, "Sextown USA" and "Moustache" call back to their better 70's material, which is certainly welcome. In some cases the material is better than the execution, as "Instant Weight Loss" has a funk groove that could have been incredible with a better bass line. In general I think the sound deserves to be bigger than what the mix allows, as some of these keyboard tones would sound great if they were given more space. What matters is that there's a lot of good material here, paricularly the gospel-influenced closer "Eaten by the Monster of Love", which could have been a great single, especially as it's much better than the generic arena-rock that actually was released as one ("I Predict"). Both this album and the last one live up to the band's reputation, but things get a little rocky from here.

In Outer Space (1983)
The best way I can describe this is "Sparks-lite" - most of the tracks only have one hook, the choruses are lazy, and most of the instruments have been stripped out in favor of cheap synths - there's hardly a real drum or guitar here, and in the 21st century, this is as typical of an "80's bargain bin" album as you can get. Strangely enough, this became their most commercially successful record, thanks to a duet with then-Go-Go Jane Wiedlen on "Cool Places", which is as vapid of a synthpop song as you could imagine - there's seriously like half a hook there. The other track she guests on ("Lucky Me, Lucky You") fares much better, mainly because it's slower and actually melodic. This is Sparks alright, but the punch has been taken out, even compared to their B-level efforts like Whomp That Sucker - there's almost no power or depth to these arrangements, and the only time when Russ seems interested in the song he's singing is during "Rockin' Girls", which is almost by default the best track on here. So they get a D for effort, but it's not exactly a total waste - Ron's lyrical muse is still sharp ("We're a fun bunch of guys/From outer space/On the planet that we're from/Even war is fun"). If nothing else, it's worth listening to for that alone, since there's little-to-no replay value anywhere else - even though the album is pretty short, it still feels like it goes on forever. There are a few neat concept tunes like the dreary-on-purpose "Dance Goddammit" and the hyperactive "I Wish I Looked A Little Better", but for each one of those, there's an unintentionally boring one like "Please Baby Please" or the "I Predict" rewrite "Prayin' For a Party". If nothing else, it did catapult a legitimately talented band to the mainstream, even if most of those talents suddenly went missing in action.

Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat (1984)
Whatever's been happening to Sparks in the 80's, don't let it happen to you - they've turned into plastic dorks that can't write songs and nor invest in a decent sounding keyboard. That's actually a huge handicap since the only real non-synth instrument is the guitar, which is not even used as a lead at any point. Not that Ron and Russ can’t pull out a decent hook (title track) or a good vocal melody (“A Song That Sings Itself”) every once in a while, it’s that most of the time they can’t, and in the end you’re left with 11 forgettable tunes with all the production values of the song that comes from the ice cream truck. It’s all too clean and all too cheap – Russ barely even uses his falsetto, the drums sound unmistakably fake, and with all the bass parts being played on a very thin-sounding synthesizer, the rhythms are practically non-existent. It even sounds worse than Shout!, and when you can't even keep pace with mid-80's Devo, it's probably time to re-evaluate things. I admit the title track is catchy, and it’s easily the most fully-realized idea here – but the version from Plagiarism is a hundred times better, and there just isn’t anything else worth salvaging from here. Even Ron’s lyrical muse seems tired, with nothing as memorable as the last three albums, unless it's straight up tasteless ("Sisters"). These guys need a break.

Music That You Can Dance To (1986)
This is often pointed to as the nadir of Sparks' career (which makes it all the more ironic that later copies of this were given the title The Best of Sparks), but to my ears the songwriting is sharper than the surrounding albums, and I can see a lot of this working fine if it wasn't mired in 80's digital hell. It's got it all - the metal guitar blasts, paper-thin bass, a few bursts of "In the Air Tonight"-style drums, digitally altered vocals, and most of all, orchestral honking noises all over everything. Hell, there's even a bit of seriousness from Russ, as several songs feature spoken word sections, and "Rosebud" is an honest-to-God reflection on an accidental death. But the super-clean, digitally-rendered crystalline sound distracts from pretty much everything - by the time you hit "Let's Get Funky", it's actually physically hurting your ears. I can't imagine this sounded good even in '86, but the bigger problem is that these arrangements don't really fit the songs at all - only a handful of tunes are actually dance-oriented, so the best they can hope for is an early-Madonna vibe ("Music That You Can Dance To"). The highlight in this regard is "The Scene", which dives headfirst into big 80's robo-dance music, milking the synths, sequencers, and drum machines for all they're worth. Elsewhere, songs like "Rosebud" and "Change" are torpedoed by the instrumentation, but seem like fine tunes otherwise (the latter was re-recorded eleven years later on Plagiarism, and it shows that pretty much any arrangement is better than what the song actually got). Either way, it's not something you'll pull out often (hell, even listening to it all at once is pretty tough!), but there are some good ideas here. In fact, you could even argue that this is the beginning of their later orchestral sound, though later releases would thankfully use an actual orchestra.

Interior Design (1988)
You have to wonder if the technology to make this album entirely with a microphone, a mixing board, a cheap sampler, and a single keyboard existed in 1988. You just can’t replace a rhythm section with an outdated drum machine and Casio 137: “Slap Bass #3”, but Sparks give it a try anyway. Once again it's an album that shows a pretty minimal level of effort, which tanks everything – the singing is dull, the lyrics generic in a way I’d never think Sparks would ever be, and there doesn’t seem to be much editing, as most of the tunes run on a minute or so too long. So what makes this better than Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat? Not much, but I do feel that “Let’s Make Love” could have became a heartfelt and memorable ballad if they released it on, say, Indiscreet, that “You Got A Hold Of My Heart” has a few neat chord changes, and that “Madonna” does make an okay single, with Russell sounding like a beat poet. And “Love-o-rama” is at least half as catchy as “Eaten By the Monster Of Love”, isn’t it? But that's really grabbing at straws. I'll let Mark Prindle take it from here - "Skip it, don't buy it, and when you're finished, don't buy it again."

Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins (1994)
Perhaps realizing that the band needed some serious rejuvenation, the brothers decided to take six years off and come back as the Pet Shop Boys. It's no surprise then that the album basically sounds like Sparks-ninetified, with more electronica-sounding drum machine rhythms and updated synths. It doesn't really work; this album seems as hopelessly mired in the 90's as Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat did in the 80's. Luckily the end result is a little better than that; I always fool myself into thinking this is going to be a good album, because "When Do I Get To Sing 'My Way'?" is perhaps their best track in 15 years - it's a throwback disco tune with some more modern elements (like a breakbeat-inspired drum loop). Unfortunately they don't carry that same kind of inspiration throughout. Most of the tracks are catchy enough, and there are a few keepers ("Now That I Own The BBC", "Tsui Hark"). It sounds like they were trying to replicate "When I'm With You" a bunch of times. It's not really a bad listen, and they never do anything obnoxious, but there's only really nine tunes here if you don't count the intro/outro segments, and most of them feel like extended cuts - a lot of times I was expecting a song to start fading out or go into a coda of some kind, only to find out the song wasn't even half over. At least they got their sense of humor back ("I Thought I Told You To Wait In The Car"), and I guess you really have to give them some credit at this point simply for not being awful. You won't hate this album, but you may end up wishing you had bought an actual Pet Shop Boys album instead.

Plagiarism (1997)
Well, if you can't come up with good new material, this is the next best thing. This is sort of a "greatest hits" release, only everything has been re-recorded and in most cases dramatically rearranged. They decide to use a full orchestra to make a unique brand of pop on many of the tracks, even turning "Pulling Rabbits Out Of a Hat" into something great. Several songs are done in that style - "This Town" and "Something For the Girl With Everything" are both given that treatment, and also appear in near-metal versions featuring Mike Patton on vocals, whose style is almost more distinctive than Russell's. There are definitely mixed results - I'm not crazy about the choice to turn "Amateur Hour" into a cheap-sounding dance tune, but it's worth hearing again - if nothing else, the songs themselves are all good, so it's good to listen all the way through. The only downside is that three of the tunes get repeated twice, which is a little disappointing considering their rich back catalog and what got skipped. I won't go through everything here, but I think every Sparks fan will love a few songs, hate a few, and find the rest generally agreeable. And this really did inspire the group; they'd adopt a much more orchestral sound in 2002, which I think is a direct result of trying old songs in this way in the first place.

Balls (2000)
Another album with a clear early-90's dance music sound, which is a little confusing considering the 2000 release date. It's a little different from Gratuitous Sax - the drum machine is more frantic and industrial, Russell's singing becomes more repetitive and somber, and it's less based off traditional song structure, putting this more in the category of "mainstream electronic". There's a few glimmers of hope - "Balls" and "Aeroflot" are both catchy tunes, a hybrid of guitar-based rock and electronic dance music, but for much of the album they're still doing the same things they've done for the last two decades ("More Than A Sex Machine"), with a more serious tone - I get the feeling that some of these lyrics are actually sincere (could it be?). There's some good second-rate dance music ("Bullet Train") and at least one top-notch cut ("Irreplaceable"), but some of it just doesn't work ("It's A Knockoff", "It's Educational"). Still, the Sparks of new are finally starting to sound a little like the Sparks of old, and the result is probably their best album since Angst in My Pants.

Lil' Beethoven (2002)
I guess it's no secret that Sparks went from being a great band that was kind of relevant, to an okay band that was a little relevant, to an awful band whose only fans were a few holdouts from the 70's. Sure, their recent releases weren't bad, but when you're writing approximately two songs a year you're not exactly going to be rolling in new fans. At the end of the day, you just have to wonder how such an influential and talented group became so irrelevant, and whether or not they could ever recapture their old spirit. In 95% of these cases the answer is no, but I guess Sparks did not want to suck for a 3rd consecutive decade, so they really went back to the drawing board and retooled their sound from the ground up. The result is a complete change from anything you've heard before out of Sparks, save some of the tracks on Plagiarism - it's orchestral dance music with nearly no drums. Instead, there are lots of violins and a chorus of Russells on every track, giving the album a big feel despite only featuring a few musicians. It's repetitive, but that's really the point - it's something unique with a lot of potential, resulting in some of the best Sparks tracks in who knows how long; "Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls" adds rock instrumentation and ends up rocking as hard (or harder) than anything they've ever done, and "Ride 'em Cowboy" and "Rhythm Thief" show off what these guys have been hiding (or just lost) for the last 20 or so years. Even though parts of it are obnoxious ("green green light, alright! red light"), those are the parts that seem to be stuck in your head the most. For once you get the sense that the Maels were actually excited about what they were doing, which is enough to forgive that not all the songs are interesting all the way through ("I Married Myself", "What Are All These Bands So Angry About?"). Still, there's at least one good idea on each track, and I'm guessing every Sparks fan was ecstatic to hear this - they've certainly been waiting long enough. It's as though the 70's Sparks never went away; this was one of the most unique and creative albums of 2002, from a band that hasn't been unique or creative since 1981!

Hello Young Lovers (2006)
Sparks really hit on a great formula here, combining the orchestral movements of the last album with their old glam rock sound. The result mostly follows the arrangement of "Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls", the one song on their last album that fully put Sparks the rock band back into the mix. As Russell himself sings on "Rock, Rock, Rock" (perhaps addressing some of the complaints with their last album), "soft passages, they get you into trouble" (of course, this is Sparks, so "Rock, Rock, Rock" has more soft passages than anything else on the album). So Sparks do rock out quite a bit on this album, partcularly on the 6-minute leadoff track "Dick Around" which actually does justice to the classification "pop symphony". It's a layered and intricate tune that suddenly builds to a stunning hard rock crescendo, and may just be the best song they ever wrote. This approach bleeds into some of the other tracks, as "Waterproof", "(Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country?", and "As I Sit Down to Play the Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral" all boast several sections and diverse instrumentation, and rarely do they hit a wrong note. Some of the remaining tracks hinge on repeating vocal sections with minimal backing ("The Very Next Fight", "There's No Such Thing as Aliens", "Here Kitty"), and are generally short. The only track that doesn't quite fit either way is "Perfume", a clever and memorable single that could have worked on prior albums (though hardly the best thing on here). This is probably my favorite album of 2006, as it's one of the few modern pop albums that tries to push the genre forward instead of just rehashing the past, all while maintaining the band's unique identity. What's really impressive about the album is how fun it is on the surface, as outside of Cardiacs or Sufjan Steven's Illinois there are few examples of music this effortlessly enjoyable with so many things going on at once.

Exotic Creatures of the Deep (2008)
Another album in the new style, this one thankfully not taking 4 years to produce. The sound is a continuation of the last two, with there being less orchestral stuff and more of their 70's-style pop (with a techno-synth buzz being the new element; bzzzt bzzzt b-braaap), resulting in an album that both the group and the fans have got to be satisfied with - it's not as unique as Li'l Beethoven, but most of the band’s good qualities can be found here, and I’d be surprised if they ever deviate from this sound in the future. The album kicks off with "Good Morning", the single, a boppy and fantastic piano-led tune that's bursting with hooks the way some of their 70's material is. That ought to have put them back into the mainstream, but it has yet to, so what gives? Is it the lyrics, detailing the morning after a one-night stand - with Russ sounding pleased with himself, despite the woman bolting? That it features the line "I hope it's just your laugh that is infectious"? It's not epic and powerful like "Dick Around" was, but the second single "Lighten Up, Morrissey" almost is, a guitar-driven track featuring some of Russ's best vocals yet. Overall the songs don't have the same complex structures as they did on the last two albums (save for closer "Likeable") but they are catchier, in the same obnoxious way Sparks has always been (“Let The Monkey Drive”). There’s still a few repetitive, go nowhere tracks (“Photoshop”, “She Got Me Pregnant”), but without the high points – “Lighten Up” is a clear standout, but I really wish there was just one or two more great tunes on here. Still a good album from a group that’s weathered 40 years in the biz – there’s a sense of playfulness and excitement that doesn't appear often in bands that have "only" been around half that long.

The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman (2009)
This "radio musical" is the telling of a "what if?" story about the Hollywood career that Ingmar Bergman never actually had. Not exactly a follow-up to Exotic Creatures, but it covers a lot of the same ground, and most of Russ's vocal spots veer into typical 00's Sparks orchestral pop ("Limo Driver", "Mr. Bergman, How are You?"). Plus, there are some heavier tracks with guitars ("The Studio Commissary", "Why Do You Take That Tone With Me?") that recall the best moments of the last three albums. As far as the story goes, it's a pretty sharp critique of Hollywood and a good character study, with a lot of cleverness and wit (as you'd expect), though with a good third of the lyrics in Swedish, it's tough to get the whole picture. Still, any Sparks fan should appreciate this for the actual song-like material, which comprises a good chunk of the play. They've already proven that they can do catchy stuff with strings and electronics, and most of this type of material should be familiar to fans of the group. However, it does lack heavy-hitters, as Russ doesn't actually sing much, which leaves a lot of the music to sound like Li'l Beethoven minus the main vocal lines. The final third is mostly dramatic material such as the two-part "Escape", along with some downtempo versions of earlier themes (as is common in musicals). At this point you really get to hear Sparks being forced to try some new things, which does highlight Ron's compositional skills. As a concept, this is really something (the guy who plays Bergman is particularly great), but I'm not really sure who this was supposed to appeal to. It certainly sounds like something they've wanted to do for a while, as there is a genuine enthusiasm here. Those who are fans of the last three Sparks albums definitely owe it to themselves to give it at least one listen.

Thanks for the reviews! I started with Propaganda, and it's still my favorite. "Thank But No Thanks" and "Something for the Girl with Everything" are pop art!