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Main Category: Smart Pop
Also applicable: Dance Pop, Meta-Rock
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years,

The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day



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SPARKS *****

Year Of Release: 1971

Listening to this album, it's rather obvious that the Sparks couldn't even have hoped to procure themselves a mass audience - a true Californian band would have been expected to wank around in psychedelia or Southern rock, at least, and not engage in such meaningless and ridiculous actions as running ahead of their time by predicting operatic rock, New Wave, synth-pop and nearly every important 'lightweight pop' genre of the modern era at the same time.

Which is exactly what the Mael brothers are doing on this groundbreaking (I'd even say "earth-shattering") debut album, perhaps the most stunning debut album to ever be out of print in the good old musically trained United States of America. Apart from that, it also marks the beginning of Todd Rundgren's career as producer; he is vastly responsible for the slick, superb sound of the album, and bringing out all the immeasurable talents of Ron and Russell Mael.

Basically, there's so much to say about the album that I wouldn't even know where to start. What does it sound like? Like... like nothing else. It's pop, yes, pop music that accumulates some of the elements already present on the stage at the time: music-hall, folk-rock, balladry, etc., but it also adds weird rhythms, cozy little synthesizer patterns, operatic harmonies, and endless avantgarde tempo changes and weird song structures. I don't know if anybody of the "greats" actually listened to that record, but I could make a guess. Queen borrowed the operatic multi-layered harmonies and the eccentricity. Blondie borrowed the playfulness and the rhythms. The Cars borrowed the jerky little synth patterns. Early Roxy Music borrowed the futuristic atmosphere. 10CC borrowed the sneering lyrics and untrivial 'melody breaks' (i.e. the complex song structures). I could go on for ages.

Practically every song has something to offer - and the record has a wonderful flow, alternating creepy atmospheric numbers with jazzy avantgarde compositions with more traditionally sounding ballads for breathers; plus, the songs are mostly short and extremely 'time-conscious', so you'll hardly get bored even for a single second. The band's actual musicianship was never particularly spectacular, but Ron's keyboard work is pleasant and tasteful, and guitarist Earle Mankey even lets go with a super-duper grumbley metallic riff from time to time.

Damn, it's even difficult to mark all the highlights, but I'll try. 'Wonder Girl' opens the record - a two-and-a-half minute beautiful pop explosion that most "power pop" bands of the period could kill for: charming vocal harmonies ("some gi-irl, that gi-irl"), a highly memorable music-hall inspired vocal melody, unpretentious love lyrics and an inimitable ironic theatrical intonation in Russell Mael's voice. But did I say 'unpretentious love lyrics'? How's bout that: 'She was a wonder to her friends / It's a wonder that she always started trends / And after all, trends make us all contenders in the fall'? Ain't that mahvellous?

'Fa La Fa Lee' could have been mistaken for something off the Cars' Candy-O - except that the Cars could never have penned a number that's so complex, so memorable and so mind-numbingly fun at the same time (not to mention the lyrical matters - apparently, the song is about a brother dreaming of committing incest with his sister!). Same goes for the acoustic-and-synth-driven 'Roger' with its unforgettable 'Uuu-Roger! Uuu-Roger! Let's take your Sue!' refrain, or the bouncy, slightly paranoid 'High C' with its mix of romanticism, doo-wop and opera (have I forgotten anything?) and more hooks within three minutes than lie within the entire Limp Bizkit catalog.

But the honor of the best song on the album still falls to 'Fletcher Honorama'. Did you know that it's actually the songs that sound the least 'dangerous', the quiet subtle ones that can seem creepier than anything? With its toned-down guitars and relaxing soothing harmonies the song begins just like an inoffensive little pop ditty, albeit with undecipherable lyrics; but with each new chorus, the angst and anxiety actually grow, and just as you're prepared to witness something evil, there it comes - the awesome coda, with multi-tracked harmonies chanting 'so be sure, so be sure that the boy don't die before the mo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-rn'. Man, it's real creepy. In an untrained state of mind, it can just seem stupid, of course, but we're talking a "musically trained state of mind", right? Woof.

The second side of the album does contain maybe one or two tracks that sound slightly less impressive after you've sucked in the entire first side, but still, it's the side that gave us 'Slowboat' (the most 'mainstreamish' song on here - a beautiful Bee Gees-sound alike ballad with a raising and inspiring vocal melody, which would easily be a hit had the boys considered releasing it as a single), the biting social commentary of 'Big Bands' with a heart-melting Russell falsetto, and, of course, the slightly more rocking 'No More Mr Nice Guys' - with a title later stolen by the Alice Cooper band - that's the epic masterpiece of the album and basically sounds like Queen without the grandiose production, but with far more musical talent and far less pretention.

Okay, so Sparks is not a flawless masterpiece: some songs and song parts don't feel 'ideally constructed', but I won't even mention those quibbles. Instead, I'll leave you with this conclusion: from now on, your life shall have the only possible meaning - to find and acquire that album. Rip through the used bins, break into your best friend's home, flood record companies with flames and threats, save Napster from extinction, whatever, but be sure that eventually you get to hear all the songs off Sparks. Otherwise, your hopes of establishing a decent rock perspective are as vain as my hopes of actually making you hunt for this album. There! That's what I call a 'vicious circle'!



Year Of Release: 1972

Not as immediately thrilling as the debut, but what is? Although most critics will certainly tell you that this was an 'expansion' of the 'early' and 'immature' Sparks sound (because no reasonable critic will believe that a band's debut album can be "mature" unless it's the Doors or Jimi Hendrix), to me this 'maturation' seems to have robbed the band of a large part of its initial charm. Todd Rundgren is out of the picture, and the Sparks' new producer, James Lowe, decides that the band would be better off - and probably more successful in the commercial sense - with a more full-fledged sound, reminiscent of jangly power pop outfits such as Badfinger or the Raspberries, maybe. Reasonable decision, of course, but it fails to acknowledge the fact that the Sparks were not just jangly power pop, but a pop-based creative unity with a rich experimental flair, and much of this flair gets lost because of the weak production. Why is it weak? Because it concentrates too much on Earl Mankey's guitars (of course! Gimme more o' that jangle!), and often shoves the keyboards and the vocals in the background... when the Sparks were the keyboards and the vocals. Stupid, stupid producer.

Nevertheless, Woofer is still a fine record - it's just that the hooks take more time to grow on you, and the fun takes more time to catch up with you. In the end, though, more than half of the songs turn out to be just as irresistable and impeccable as the debut. 'Girl From Germany' is a cool upbeat pop number that was the closest the Sparks ever got to having a Top 100 single (after 'Wonder Girl'), with a rare lyrical twist - in a pretty straightforward way, they are actually ridiculizing people that are still prejudiced against Germans (with sly mocking lines like 'the car I drive is parked outside, it's German-made... they resent that less than people that are German-made').

'Beaver O'Lindy' supposedly borrows its introductory synth pattern from 'Oh Mein Lieber Augustin', but the song itself is pretty hard rockin', with an explosive, glammy, proto-Queenish chorus. In the meantime, 'Nothing Is Sacred' is the centerpiece on here, and again, the lyrics are one of the song's main attractions, as the brothers complain about the Lord having lost his meaning for people in this world of technical progress and scientific discoveries, reaching a culmination in Russell's ironic screaming, 'I am sure you will appreciate your new found leisure time'. Needless to say that the chorus is catchy AGAIN and that if you wanna look for a climax, you'll have to wait until the end when the song is gradually sped up and Russell goes completely nutty, screaming out 'Nothing is sacred any more, no no nothing...' in his patented falsetto just like an ecstatic preacher turning his culprit into a Panzer tank. (Not sure about the validity of this metaphor. Consider it an experimental one, together with the entire site).

Other highlights include the string-quartet-enhanced 'Here Comes Bob' (is it really about a guy who tries to make friends with everyone by driving his car into theirs or have I got it all wrong?); the stage favourite 'Do-Re-Mi', which actually suffers from its rocking arrangement because it makes the song seem like a mess when it actually ain't one; the unbeatable power pop anthem 'Underground', a song that nearly matches Beatles-quality pop and certainly smashes all possible contemporary competition from power popsters; and the ring-ring-ringing thunderstorm of 'Batteries Not Included', about ten thousand googol times better than the Jethro Tull song of the same name recorded nine years later.

There is one really low point, though, when Russell coos his way through a French-stylized sappy ditty ('The Louvre'), with the lyrics naturally being in French. Unlike 10CC's later venture into the world of GalloPop (the wonderous 'Une Nuit A Paris'), this one just seems boring and if it's a joke/stunt/gimmick, it's a failed one. Apart from that, the rest of the songs that I haven't mentioned are all worthy of something, but not particularly memorable. But remember, I did mention almost all of them, so that's no condemnation, just a statement of a minor fact/quibble/complaint.

In any case, even if Woofer doesn't seem so chock-full of hooks and fresh ideas as its predecessor, it's still a solid record, and you could always blame all the faults and flaws on the producer, after all. It sure didn't establish the band's reputation as one-hit wonders! (Mainly because they didn't even have that one hit, of course!) So, since it's such a nifty little record, it's naturally out of print. Why, isn't that logical? You bet it is!



Year Of Release: 1974

Having realized that the tastes of the American public would never coincide with their lust for "experimental pop" approach (well, the American public was too busy buying up the Eagles' records and preparing themselves for Kiss and the critics never noticed anyone but Bruce Springsteen anyway), the Sparks decided to follow in the footsteps of Jimi Hendrix and relocated to the UK: quite a natural thing to do, after all, what with all their Britpop influences and music-hall ditties. Sure enough, the English public found the Sparks far more attractive: Kimono My House never made any kind of impact in the States, but it made the British Top Ten and spawned two major hit singles - which finally gave Ron and Russell some financial satisfaction. By the way, Ron and Russell had dumped the Mankey brothers and the drum player after moving to England, and all of their subsequent replacements, while some of them were listed as official band members, really only mattered as random session musicians; from now on, it was the Mael show all the way through.

But why make a fuss of it? Kimono My House is an absolute masterpiece and one of, if not the, very best "dance-pop" album ever recorded. It was dubbed the band's "glam-pop magnum opus", and the epithet is fully deserved. I used to scowl a bit at the lack of diversity; after all, their debut album showed that they could tackle introspective melancholy pop, sweet balladry and ass-kicking heavy rock, but all of these genres have been left behind on here in order to make way to their new, full-fledged, lush-processed brand of dance music. However, few doubts are there that any of these songs are undeserving of the highest praise. It is so dang rare when you encounter a dance-pop album that's fully danceable all the way through - and yet, features cool complex melodies, rich, imaginatively arranged vocal harmonies, and cool classy lyrics to boot.

And oh, these lyrics. The Mael brothers are fond of inventing cute little "what if..." kind of stories and putting them to music - you have a deceased boy blaming his girl for backing off after they'd both decided to commit suicide ('Here In Heaven'), a guy who's glad it's not Christmas because Christmas is the only day when he can't get away from his wife ('Thank God It's Not Christmas'), another guy who's mad at his girl for telling that she'd meet him on the equator but not having arrived in due time ('Equator'), and another guy who's having problems with explaining his feelings to a gal because he wasn't taught languages properly in school ('Hasta Manana Monsieur'). They all make sense, although many of them require extra explanation, and they're all fabulous.

And the melodies? Can you get away from these melodies? The two British hit singles are absolutely great: 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us' predicts classic Queen once again, with its unbeatable mix of cheesy piano melodies, heavy riffs and falsetto vocals - you can be sure Freddie Mercury made good note of this song when he was recording 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and the like. 'Amateur Hour', on the other hand, predicts classic ABBA - but it lacks the slick production, unskilled lyrical approach and extra sappiness of that band that make it so vomit-inducing for snobs. When Russell chimes in with that powerful refrain - 'amateur hour goes on and on, when you turn pro you know she'll let you know...' - it's like instant pop nirvana! But if you understood that appraisal as yet another appraisal of a simplistic pop ditty, don't do that: 'Amateur Hour's subtle vocal twists are not any less complex than your average Yes vocal melody, and maybe even more; on top of that, they're far more memorable and a lot more fun.

But forget the hit singles: almost everything on here is an instant classic. 'Falling In Love With Myself Again'? Ever heard a better waltz-pop anthem recorded by anyone? I really doubt that. 'In My Family'? Now here's a song Ray Davies would have killed for. Russell just lets his vocal flow throughout, with hook after hook after hook, extolling the virtues of 'my family' that is gonna be 'manufacturing many many me's', before bringing it all to the unexpected finish of 'gonna hang myself from my family tree'. 'Here In Heaven' is really spooky, with Russell crooning 'Juliet, you broke our little pact, Juliet, I'm never coming back' and concluding it with the brilliant phrase - 'It is Hell knowing that your health will keep you out of here [i.e. Heaven] for years and years and years'. 'Thank God It's Not Christmas' simply assassinates you with its Phil Spectorish power and beauty; 'Equator' is moodier than the Moodiest Blues... oh boy, I'm at a loss. I don't know how to describe this sound. It's all amazing, gorgeous beyond words... gorgeous, catchy, intelligent and influential.

Even the bonus tracks, two contemporary B-sides, rule mightily, particularly the boogie-like 'Barbecutie'; and 'Lost And Found' raises the eternal immortal theme - will you return a found wallet to its owner or are you gonna keep it to yourself because 'he's Robin Hood by accident, I need it more than he does and I surely will not feel bad at all?' Eh? What's your say, mister?

Resume: it is the duty of every music-loving person on this planet to hunt, track down and grrrrab this album and hold on to it like nothing else. Arguably the most shameful spot on American musical reputation is that the American public tastes forced these guys to flee their homeland. Repent, citizens of America! Repent now before it's too late! The Lord has already signed a pact with the Maels! Would ye better abide the snare of Satan?



Year Of Release: 1974

Slightly less compelling, but only slighty; essentially, Propaganda is like a 'minor twin brother' to Kimono, which isn't that surprising considering that the Maels recorded it right on the heels of the success of its predecessor. Consequently, it sounds a bit rushed: the arrangements aren't as immaculately fleshed out, and a few tracks even seem 'underproduced'. Minor letdowns in lyrics (not as many of those wonderful 'bizarre stories' this time) and a couple relative filler pieces also prevent me from rating this one as high as its predecessor. But mind you, it's hard to top perfection, and Kimono My House is perfection, so you don't get to hear me really complaining. The Sparks were on a roll, and their sense of melody was as strong as ever.

The hit singles this time were 'Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth' and 'Something For The Girl With Everything', neither of which boasted as bombastic a production as their previous singles; in fact, the former is actually a soft and calm ballad, beginning with a harpsichord pattern not unlike the one that initiates the Kinks' 'She Bought A Hat Like Princess Marina'; on the other hand, due to a certain depth in sound, subtle orchestration and Russell's beautiful singing (and even a gorgeous guitar solo), the song acquires a certain majesty and solemnity that the Sparks' material usually lacks - heck, these guys are lightweight jokers, after all. As for 'Something For The Girl', it's a marvelous rave-up in the usual style - blistering music-hall influenced pop, that is.

As usual, though, the hit singles only lift the rug that covers the record's goodies by a couple inches. Actually, I already feel like repenting when I mentioned 'filler' on this album: when I actually think of things to say when describing the songs, there's not a single number that I couldn't speak up for. Let's put it this way: about four fifths of this album are so excellent that they overshadow the other one fifth of it. This is how I feel, more or less, which doesn't mean that that one fifth isn't worth mentioning or admiring. So much for a mathematical approach.

'At Home At Work At Play' has Russell powerfully rapping out the lyrics backed by a couple glorious riffs and supported by hilarious lyrics (how's that to you: 'I'm gonna love you under incandescent light, I'm gonna love you under fluorescent light, The glaring sun above should not inhibit us at all, I'm very glad that your libido never palls'?). 'Reinforcements' uses clever army-style metaphors for you-know-what, and a nice incorporation of martial rhythms. 'B.C.', I guess, is one of those 'slighter' songs, mainly because the melody is slightly too corny even for Sparks - sounds like a childish ditty for three-year olds. Then again, I suppose it's probably meant to - it's a parody on the "family happiness" genre, with the lyrics actually hinting at divorce.

'Thanks But No Thanks': one more gorgeous vocal melody and a mood/lyrical approach taken right over from 'Thank God It's Not Christmas' (a dude walking on the streets and desperately not wanting to go home - sheez, I wonder how many family problems did these guys have to experience). And 'Don't Leave Me Alone With Her?' Misogyny once again? 'A Hitler wearing heels, A soft Simon Legree, A Hun with honey skin, De Sade who makes good tea?' Now you know you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of these guys.

'Achoo' is about... about invalids, I guess; the song that serves as a blueprint for most of Queen's fast 'light-pop' excourses, with a mind-boggling overdubbing of 'achoo achoo' noises all over. 'Who Don't Like Kids' cleverly uses dissonance; 'Bon Voyage' is optimistic and inspiring; 'Alabamy Right' is an amusing mockery of Broadway values; and 'Marry Me' concludes the record on a wonderful bombastic note.

Ah well, I just couldn't refrain from mentioning every single song, but what the heck - it's a necessity if you speak of classic Sparks records. Let each and every one of those titles hit you over the head until you're ready to drop everything and run off in search of this stuff! Frankly, I don't even understand how in 1974 two guys with eccentric looks could have gone on to produce not one, but two albums of such jaw-dropping quality, and still not be universally recognized as two of the Seventies' most obvious geniuses. These two albums alone are enough to increase the reputation of 1974 in my eyes - a year which, as far as I was concerned, produced a far less share of brilliant records than its predecessor.



Year Of Release: 1975

The first Sparks album (after four in a row!) that I'm not really wild about, but it's still of a quality that lesser pop bands would murder for. This time, the Mael brothers turn to Tony Visconti, and together they fork out a sound that's somewhat more "full-sounding" than on Propaganda, but nowhere near as grandiose and overwhelming as on Kimono My House. Simply put, there's a bit too much jazz and opera on here for me; nothing wrong with that by itself, of course, but it was the massive kick we could get out of their merger of opera with dance-pop rhythms that was so unique.

A typical example of this new weaker style is the album opener, 'Hospitality On Parade'. On the surface, this is a typical Sparks number, with bombastic and loud production, exaggerated vocals, funny and thoughtful lyrics and clever instrumentation. And yet it lacks a clearly-defined hook, unless you count the heavy simple martial riff that appears towards the middle of the song as a hook; but it's so blunt and so 'alien' to the general feel of the song that I can't call it a good hook by any means. And while the lyrics to 'Happy Hunting Ground' are absolutely unique (for once, somebody actually calls you to drop in rather than drop out), the melody leaves a lot to be desired, at least, when you've already heard 'Amateur Hour'.

Some blame the flawed character of the record on Visconti, but it's hard for me to agree or disagree: Visconti had been an excellent producer up to that point, working on some of the best albums by Bowie, T. Rex and Gentle Giant, and as far as I know, he never really pushed his clients into specific directions, preferring to add his touch to the already fleshed out ideas. That said, if it's him that's responsible for the poor mixing of Russell's voice on many of these tracks, I'll personally see to it that he gets about three hundred thousand years of hell booked for him in advance.

Enough of that. Let's get around to the actual songs; poor production or not, there's still enough gas left to guarantee a good listen and a handful of classics. Light Broadwayish atmosphere is encountered in the eerie 'Without Using Hands' with the brothers painting a rather grim picture at the end (the lyrical continuity is hard to reproduce without quoting the entire song, but let's just say that the last time the title is repeated, it does indeed presume not having hands at all). 'Get In The Swing' bounces along in its operetta groove like mad. 'Pineapple' is hilarious (and that's the only thing I can say about it), and 'Tits' is just as controversial as the title presupposes it to be. It tells the story of a drunk sitting at a bar and complaining that 'for years, for months, tits were once a source of fun and games at home, and now she says, tits are only there to feed our little Joe so that he'll grow'. EH? Of course it's a metaphor of love lost over family problems, but the way this problem is exposed, I'd easily believe this could be a major reason for Indiscreet selling far less copies in the UK than its two predecessors... Regardless, the powerful chorus ('drink, Harry, drink Harry, drink till you can't take no more') is enough to redeem for any controversies.

And in any case, even if you're offended, you'll regain your senses listening to the wonderful 'It Ain't 1918', dealing with people not following fashion, for its excellent violin work and complex vocal melody. Or maybe you'll like the gorgeous, gorgeous voice/piano interaction in 'Lingering Lady', the only moment of transcendent beauty on the entire album. Or perhaps you're a connoisseur of cabaret, cher Monsieur? In this case, you're welcome to enjoy 'Looks Looks Looks', our newest offer in that genre, highlighted by the finest in jazzy brass arrangements and - how could you doubt it - the finest in Russell Mael's vocal deliveries! The one and only Russell Mael, monsieur, and he's singing a melody written by the one and only Ron Mael that you will never forget! Or if you just prefer some quiet melodrama, please pay attention to the record's closing bit of revelation - the enigmatic 'Miss The Start Miss The End', the track that certain nit-witty nitwits say best describes the relations between Sparks and the general record-buying public (particularly in the Sparks' native homeland), but whose real meaning touches depths of a far more metaphysical character.

Anyway, the show is over, and, like I said, while there are fewer memorable moments on here than before, you can hardly despise the brothers for that little flaw. After all, it's obvious that after four albums of such immaculate or near-immaculate quality, they would slowly begin losing steam. Oh, and, by the way, all of the songs here are credited entirely to Ron, with not a single co-writing credit with Russell. Could this be one of the possible issues? Or do we have to blame poor Tony Visconti for all of that?


BIG BEAT *****

Year Of Release: 1976

Getting tired of endless rows of five stars already? Well, what can I do? Big Beat is vintage Sparks, at their most upbeat, punchy, nasty, aggressive, sneering, and catchy as heaven and hell. After Indiscreet failed to achieve chart access as significant as the two preceding albums, the Maels got dissatisfied with the British public as well and relocated back to the States, burying themselves deeper in the underground. Yet it is simply amazing how the word "underground" can actually be associated with a record like Big Beat, a record that has commercial potential a-plenty, but which no one really bought because, remember, Kiss were already on a roll, and what can be more fun than Kiss? Only Korn, I guess.

Big Beat does sound different, though. It is now far more guitar-heavy, mostly courtesy of new 'band member' (Jeff Salen), but more important, it dumps the weak production and most of the Maels' failed 'slow grooves' like 'Tits', to concentrate on the stuff the brothers did best: no-bull experimental dance music. In addition to that, Big Beat boasts maybe the most vicious lyrics you'll ever encounter on a Sparks album. It is, of course, thoroughly marinated in misogyny - what would you expect if the album has two songs in a row called 'White Women' and 'I Like Girls'? And the first one of them goes 'What's good enough for Adam is good enough for me, I'm awfully glad we got 'em, they're easy to see'? And the second goes 'No one is restricted, no one is tied down, but the Greece of old collapsed 'cause no one liked their girls?' Down with political correctness, up with sly sexy fun: 'Throw Her Away (And Get A New One)' recommends to do just that because 'like everything else in this world time wreaks havoc on every girl'.

But the irony and bitterness go far beyond ordinary sexism: 'I Bought The Mississippi River' derides commercialism; 'Gone With The Wind' is a stab against both the generic cinema routine and the casual movie-watcher ('We're telling you, gone with the wind, there's a lot to be said for it, but I don't know just what, they don't tell my type the plot'); 'Screwed Up' is the Maels' take on 'Won't Get Fooled Again', with the anti-classic line 'and nothin's blowin in the wind' in key position. And 'Everybody's Stupid' simply trashes everything, in immortal lines like 'I traded you for Jean and Myra, I traded them for the Mormon Choir, Now I got some music and the Lord, And I'm feeling dumber than before'.

It's all the more amazing that this "lightweight" version of Steely Dan should set these venomous lyrics to some of the most head-spinning, gutsy dance beats and melodies of the entire decade. I mean, only the Sparks could have recorded something like 'Fill-er-up', a frantic piece of boogie that's as much fun as any Fifties' piece of wallrattling rock'n'roll and sounds like a jerky parody on that rock'n'roll at the very same time. Or such an unforgettable pop stomper as 'Nothing To Do', with Russell crooning 'I want you, I want you bad' like he really needs her that bad. And as poisonous as 'Everybody's Stupid' and 'Throw Her Away' are, they're both provided with super-snazzy, delicious pop melodies that... oh boy, now I gone done it. I'm starting to describe every single song on here again in exactly the same expressions and terms. Forgive me. I know I could write a book on this album - there's so much going on here - but when you deal with perfect masterpieces of pop music like these, words just fail me. Didn't you ever wonder why all of those Beatles' album reviews are the shortest on the site? That's because their actual greatness can't be explained other than in terms like "wow, this song has SUCH a great vocal melody!"

Whatever. One thing I gotta point out is: there's not a single bad song on the album, which means that every one of those tunes, whether they last for two or four minutes (not longer), are carefully thought over, skilfully planned and perfectly produced. This is the main reason it gets five stars: it doesn't amount to such epic scales as Sparks, nor does it shine in all of its glammy-glittery armour like Kimono My House; instead, the album just wins by being arguably the Sparks' most consistent piece of work. Ironically, it also proved to be the last 'classic' Sparks album before the guys discovered disco. Ah, disco, how I hate thee for destroying the credentials of one of the best pop bands in this world... the credentials, that is, not the talent.



Year Of Release: 1977

This one's still unavailable on CD, due to the Sparks' recording company problems and intricacies, and it's a total shame - only immediate CD availability could help dispel the common notion that Introducing Sparks was the beginning of the band's decline. In some technical way it is; the album hardly 'progresses' over the previous achievements of the band, and as far as radically new ideas go, it is certainly 'stagnant' compared to both the 1974-76 period and the subsequent proto Eighties dance pop of No. 1 In Heaven. Where it is not stagnant is the songwriting department, though. With a relatively 'smaller' sound than before, almost entirely ditching the hard-rocking distorted guitars, the Sparks deliver some 'lightweight' dance music that's every bit as catchy, witty, hilarious, immaculately written, arranged, and produced (not to mention sung) as before, and in some ways even better.

Every single song on here is excellent (okay, I realize this is my usual routine by now, but do you seriously want me to downgrade a song or two just because there's too much good material? There's never too much good material!), and it's pretty hard to pick out favourites. So, considering there's only nine numbers and they all have their own quirky endearing individualities, let me just go over each one. The record kicks off with 'Big Surprise' - stylistically, let's say, a "lighter" take on the basics of 'Amateur Hour', but melodically completely different. When Russell goes 'I want a big surprise tonight, a really big surprise tonight', it's the classic Sparks opposition between the romantic and the goofy: what's the song comprised more of? No other band gets you so emotionally confused and derailed, not to mention baffled over how possible it actually is to just keep baking these perfect pop melodies for years on end.

Then there's 'Occupation', with Russell musing over the flaws and advantages of all possible professions (some of the most wonderful lyrics these guys ever made up) and, again, a chorus to die for. The dance beat is unstoppable! 'Ladies' milks the band's corny vibe to a tee; I would have to find myself offended by the goofy vaudeville tricks if it wasn't for the music. Watch out for how Russell weaves his way through the rising and rising and rising verses and smoothly back to the chorus (or is that vice versa?). 'I'm Not' trades the lightweight shuffles and dance beats for a somewhat heavier stomp, but that's all right by me - repeated listens bring out the cabaret elements in the track, and the way the cabaret elements are combined with the bluesy guitar solos is genius.

Finally, the side ends with 'Forever Young', nothing to do with the Dylan track, although I guess it could be seen as some kind of a sarcastic reply to old Bobster's folksy anthem. Again, the production is slightly more thin than the one employed on Kimono, but that doesn't prevent Russell from getting his 'message' across as powerfully as ever - 'you say I'm playing God, but you're old and wasted... forever young, forever young!'. More unstoppable vocal gymnastics as Russell keeps getting higher and higher and higher in the middle eight, plus a wonderful parodic feel as the band ridiculizes THE ANTHEM as a whole.

'Goofing Off' borrows its main hook from traditional Greek dancing (or something like that, I'm not sure), and this time can serve as the anthem for the band: 'Goofing off, goofing off, I can do it, do it, do it perfectly, goofing off, goofing off, it's the only thing I gladly do for free!'. I don't mind one iota, and then there's another excellent guitar solo; gosh, when are these guys going to stop? Maybe on 'Girls On The Brain'? It's one of the teeny weeny bit inferior songs on here, mainly because it's essentially a generic blues piece, but then again, the Sparks bring LIFE into generic blues - a perverted and sick life for sure, but life all the same. A breather in between the really timeless stuff, okay, but everybody needs a simple breather in his life now and then.

'Over The Summer'... what's up with that? A late period Beach Boys parody? With music hall overtones? A steady unnerving beat? Cool falsetto? Flawlessly placed vocal harmonies? We take it. (Well, actually, it should probably serve as a preview of late period Beach Boys - and it does. And it beats the "original" all to hell). And finally, the 'grand finale' of 'Those Mysteries' baffles the listener again: an anthemic ballad with swooping, overwhelming vocal parts and actually no signs of obvious cheesiness. Were Ron and Russell being serious when they penned the overtly romantic, sentimental lyrics about the young kid discovering the 'mysteries' of the world? Whatever. After all, we can't deny even the most sarcastic band on the world their moment of emotional purity... then again: "why is there you, why is there me, why does my father kiss my mother occasionally?". Heh. In any case, just about every note Russell hits on here touches a note or two in my own heart, and the song is easily among the most beautiful they ever wrote (and you know? Don't fret! There's a cool trebly guitar solo at the end!).

So I reluctantly lower the rating a weeny bit just because there's no progression, but don't trust the numbers, trust your taste. Just trust your taste. Taste your trust. And try to download this stuff from Audiogalaxy, like I did. Every hour of slowly progressing kilobytes will bring you a couple seconds pure, unadulterated joy. A reasonable exchange as it seems.


NO. 1 IN HEAVEN ****

Year Of Release: 1979

This is where the story usually turns sour in the tales of so many listeners. And indeed, No. 1 indicates a radical departure from the classic Sparks' sound (although, to be fair, the 'classic Sparks sound' was itself a radical departure from their initial musical revolution). And the omens were dangerous: for some reason, the Sparks teamed up with none other but Giorgio Marauder, er, Moroder, that is, the infamous Guru of Seventies/Eighties' Dance-Pop, the father of disco and apparently one of the multiple incarnations of Satan himself (heh heh). Teamed up to such an extent that even most of the songs are credited to the Maels and Giorgio.

The changes brought on by this decision are huge. Objectively it must be stated that the Sparks are still way too talented to just be jumping on the bandwagon. This is not a disco album, nor is this a typical New Wave album of the epoch. This is slick, slick, s-l-i-c-k robotic, occasionally techno-style, dance-pop that most people were still unaware of in 1979; these pulsating rhythms and unnerving techno drumbeats didn't really come into favour until about three or four years later. You know, with Bananarama and stuff like that. But, of course, this implies that there are next to no guitars at all, and that the synths eat up most of the sonic space, and that there's about zero percent rock'n'roll excitement. And even the vocals aren't as distinctive as they used to be. And above all, there's but six songs in total - lengthy looping grooves that don't always seem to deserve that length.

But give the record a chance to grow on you. In my case, the initial disappointment was enormous; but you just have to let the idea that this is something "really different" sink really deep into your psyche. At this point, I don't really see how I could look through all the creativity displayed in these songs. All these six songs rule. You want hooks? You got them, mister, on every corner. You want sarcastic society-bashing lyrics? Just take the time to hustle through the lyrics sheet. You want interesting arrangements? Take the time to analyze all the overdubs and tricky sound effects. You want good singing? Perk up your ears and see through all the sonic overlays. It's still there!

'Tryouts For The Human Race', in particular, has the mighty Russell falsetto as solid as ever, and the verse melody is actually even more lush than the harmonized chorus, especially with the 'bll-bll-bll-bll' of the descending synthesizer rhythms after each line. And if you ever doubted these guys' wit, just take one look at the song title. Heck, I already identify with it. Then it's time for a fast, fast, fast race with 'Academy Award Performance', ridiculizing the music business as usual - betcha anything you'll never hear the song announcing the next Grammy award ceremony: 'oh what a great performance... what a convincing performance... an Academy Award performance!'. Terrific catchy chorus on that one.

'La Dolce Vita' is arguably the most well-developed song, if only for the way the main looping rhythm slowly grows out of the heavenly 'I'm Not In Love'-style synth aahs and oohs. But then there's the angry verse melody contrasting with the falsetto chorus, and then again, look at the lyrics. You're supposed to dance along to this stuff in a night club, and the song is about revolution: 'Golddiggers arise, golddiggers are hungry guys, golddiggers are we, step up follow me...'. Okay, you can tell me this musical style is as remote from classic Sparks as can be - what I see is an infuriatingly catchy, infuriatingly marvelously-produced "proto-mainstream" melody with some of the nastiest, sarcastiest lyrics for miles around, and that is the Sparks for me. Always has been.

Then the second side starts with 'Beat The Clock', the funniest song on the album, the Sparks' take on the Solomon Grundy thematics. Who can resist singing along to that one when you got the lyrics? And even if you don't got dem lyrics, you can still sing along to the chorus. You gotta beat the clock, so come on now! Are the Sparks still good at ballads? You betcha anything they are. 'My Other Voice' features perhaps the most gorgeous vocal melody on a Sparks album since at least 'Slow Boat'. Not sure if it really was a good idea to have the entire song "re-sung" in an electronically encoded form (personally, I would prefer another complete verse), but at least it doesn't spoil anything. It's the only song on the record that doesn't seem to be entirely tongue-in-cheek, but then again, neither did 'Slow Boat'; the Sparks often would allow themselves a pure, "unspoilt" love declaration, and they do it fine... oh wait? Pure? 'My Other Voice' actually is that electronically encoded weirdness. Dammit.

In any case, the album finishes on a sacrilegious note with the title track ('This is the number one song in heaven/Written, of course, by the mightiest hand') that was supposed to be given The Holy Dance Sound, and well, it is. Its only flaw, which it shares with a bunch of others, is that it's too long. I mean, this is essentially why the album isn't given the top ranking; the Sparks aren't really a good 'groove' band, they should be compact and tight. They could have easily squeezed these songs to a three/four minute length (well, maybe that wouldn't work for 'My Other Voice' which has a very natural crescendo going on) and added in more ideas. After all, isn't this the band that's supposed to never run out of ideas?



Year Of Release: 1979

A near four stars, but then it's hardly better than Propaganda... at least this one does seem to have a couple songs that I'm not entirely fond of, and a rather pointless instrumental reprise. But it's still pretty high quality, maybe just a little bit rushed or something. They're still continuing their romance with Moroder, but only on a couple tracks; the rest have been conceived with a different producer, and in general it shows, because the album features a bit more guitar than before and the songs aren't as immaculately confetti-like as on No. 1 In Heaven. But that hardly matters; the Sparks have been produced by everybody, and through the years they have shown us their genius can show through in every way possible, whether it be a mess like their debut album or glossy Queen-like big-band production or Giorgio Moroder's hyper-commercial pappy style.

The album actually has a cute stab against disco, or rather against disco trend-jumpers, with the mocking 'Rock'n'Roll People In A Disco World' - 'they make LP records and a few make comebacks and the rest sell shoes to all the other'. The tune can musically get a bit monotonous (well, most Sparks tunes of that period can, actually), but it hits pretty hard anyway; and no one but the Sparks, who have never pretended to be serious rock'n'rollers, could have been in a better position to make this, not very polite, but not very aggressive, condemnation of people like Paul McCartney or the Rolling Stones. Heck, I like the Stones' disco stuff all right (I still regard 'Miss You' as one of the finest creations in the genre), but it's still cool to hear a general bashing like this.

But let's get back to business, or, better to say, the correct song order. Wonderful opening, and the Sparks' biggest hit in France of all places - 'When I'm With You'. It's one of those rare songs in the Sparks catalog when you're totally lost; I mean, is this tongue-in-cheek? is this not? is it right that it almost brings me to tears? should I just be smiling? or what? Again, the main vocal melody is totally gorgeous in its repetitiveness; the techno synth riff might seem a bit out of place at first, but then it falls in its place, and the song becomes immaculate. And the "self-referencing" message of the middle eight might seem banal, but I can't help cracking a smile every time I hear 'It's the break in the song when I should say something special, but the pressure is on...'.

Now 'Just Because You Love Me' is one of those tunes I'm not really sure of - sounds like a hastily written throwback to the era of Big Beat, with a simplified beat and more guitar than on all of their previous 1979 songs taken together, but it also seems kinda straightahead and repetitive in a bad way. Maybe it's the idea that having 'just because you love me, just because you love me' as the chorus is kinda below the usual Sparks' level... anyway, I'm not too sure. And the instrumental reprise of 'When I'm With You' is somewhat pointless; the song was great, but not great enough to have it again in an obviously inferior form - Russell's singing was the greatest part of the whole thing anyway.

The second side opens with the "dual sex portrayal" of 'Young Girls' and 'Noisy Boys', both good songs but not quite spectacular. They're also, once again, somewhat closer to what the boys were doing four years before - just give this a fuller production and less of these technologically advanced synthesizers and you'll have yourself some more Propaganda quality stuff. 'Young Girls' takes up the subject of 'I Like Girls', so it's not revelatory or anything, but it has one of those charming, unbeatable Sparks refrains that just stick in your head; 'Noisy Boys' is more of a faster rocker - well, this is obvious, after all - with more of an anthemic refrain. Creative? For sure. I will never deny that, just as I will never deny that Rod Stewart's 'Young Turks' is a better song than Bloodrock's 'Sable And Pearls'. (Because, frankly, I wouldn't know which one is worse).

'Stereo' is not about your turntable at all, it is about the metaphysical ambivalence of life as conceived by the Mael brothers. Well, they're kind of a stereo system themselves, if we allow the metaphysical analogies to permeate everything. But my favourite (well, besides the obvious French hit) is still the album closer, 'The Greatest Show On Earth', from which ABBA later ripped off the basic rhythmic pattern for 'Lay All Your Love On Me'. You should hear those guys grimly harmonizing on the 'steady as she goes cause she's the greatest show' line. No, I mean, you really should hear that. It's absolutely hilarious, and the way the line gets inserted everywhere in between the verses... ooh, that's genius. Intentionally dumbified genius.

And thus closes the Sparks' synth-pop/disco period - they got somewhat different in the Eighties, you know, so treat the year 1979 as kind of a "disco holiday" (except that this is not really disco in most cases, but hey, I already said that). And let it be said once more that if you're a real fan of the 1971-75 period, these two records will be totally frustrating, but if you're strong and open-minded enough, you'll get over that; I know for sure I currently enjoy them almost as much as the "classic" period. Genius doesn't just fade away all of a sudden, not even if it's exploited by somebody like Giorgio Moroder. Now I do wonder what'd happen if the Sparks let themselves be produced by Phil Collins, though.



Year Of Release: 1981

Another change of direction; the Europop synthy stuff is now left for Depeche Mode, as the Sparks get some guitars back into the mix and concentrate on, well, eminently danceable, but far more "humane" rhythms pioneered by the Cars in 1978. Or by the Sparks in 1971, whichever you prefer.

Sadly, though, this album isn't that good. Like all Sparks albums, it grows on you mercilessly, but this time around, it somehow stops growing at a certain point. I'd say it is due to the fact that the songs are somewhat less inventive than before. Don't get me wrong; all of the songs are still filled with hooks, but it kinda seems like for this album, the Maels were content with inserting just one hook in each song, when in years past three or four was the absolute minimum. Basically Whomp That Sucker is a rhythm-based album, and the rhythmics is pretty similar on most tracks, and few of them change tempo or time signature. I mean, a song like 'Upstairs' is pretty cool for a minute or so, but for a four-minute Sparks song, it's frustratingly uneventful. The 'upstairs, upstairs, why don't you get out of there?' chorus is greater than the Eiffel tower for sure, but that's about IT for that song, and you want me to love a Sparks song that's only remarkable for its four seconds of the chorus repeated over and over again? No friggin' way.

So I guess this is where the Mael brothers' songwriting skills really showed the first signs of cracking at the seams. Too bad. At least their sense of humor is still intact, from the hilarious album cover (I wonder if they ever had any fights like these in real life?) to the lyrics. 'I Married A Martian' is the best of these: 'I married a Martian, they're good in the movies, dramatic potential, but they're not so hot in real life'. And also, I guess the record can seem like a breath of fresh air to those who were dissatisfied by the cold robotic punch of the Moroder collaborations.

Not that the individual songs are really bad, of course. They aren't. 'Suzie Safety', about safety in everything (and I do mean everything), is based on a generic Fifties pop melody but transforms it into a typically Sparks phantasmagoria of sound. 'That's Not Nastassia' is cool for more than just the title - the main melody is as memorable as anything... actually, it certainly is, because due to all this crazy assimilation on the record, its rhythm isn't that far removed from 'Suzie Safety'. Just the same three chords, not too fast and not too slow. Mmm, that's nice and all, but what about creativity?

Actually, the very best song comes at the end. 'Wacky Women' is a terrific rocker based on a repetitive descending riff that carries the traditional Sparks, er, uhm, intoxication all right, and is so frantically overdriven you'd think they were compensating with this song for all the lack of ass-kicking on the preceding nine. What's up with the lyrics, too? What's this 'Muenchen wisdom' Russell is going to teach us? Ooh, don't tell me, I don't really want to know. I guess I'm also significantly partial to 'The Willys', with a great chorus and, I guess, about one more chord in the general structure than is usual for this record.

But overall, it's a great disappointment. Is it the Eighties curse or what? The more you listen to this record, the more you realize that these guys actually took the usual pains to make this record; they wrote some non-throwaway lyrics, they cleaned and glossed up the production, they took special care of the vocal hooks and they revved up Russell to the proper condition. But there's virtually no musical experimentation on here whatsoever, for the first time ever on a Sparks record. If on Introducing they almost went overboard with their mix of styles and controversial combinations of elements from different genres and categories inside one song, and on their 1979 albums they actually predicted the general direction of dance-pop in the Eighties, then Whomp That Sucker seems like they were just taking a (maybe well deserved, of course) break from years of searching and finding.

Still, the Sparks are the Sparks - I'm pretty sure that the album can woo you over if it happens to be your introduction to the band. Any lesser band of the epoch would kill for enough material of this quality. Oh, and doesn't the near-accappella intro to 'Tips For Teens' remind you of 'Propaganda'? Oh, and, by the way, if you think 'Tips For Teens' is about sexual advice, you're wrong. Ha ha. It's about maturation, so there. Oops, no, not that maturation. Too bad it's not all that great melodically - just "nice", basically. Like all of this album.



Year Of Release: 1982

And again, a wall-rattling disappointment. Granted, I find this to be a little better than Sucker, but there's still the basic problem: the Sparks do not sound very well on here. If you think all the Sparks were ever capable of was rhythmic dance-pop, well, it's your money, mister; I, however, think that the Sparks used to do much more than just rhythmic pulsation. Where's the unbeatable melodic genius of old? All I essentially hear upon first and second listen is the endless boom - chuck, boom - chuck of the drums. Not even the synthesizers help much, usually mumbling some undistinguishable notes in the background instead of presenting us with a melody we wouldn't be able to get out of our heads for ages.

An even more dangerous thing is that on several of the tracks, the jokes begin kinda getting old. What's the point of 'Mickie Mouse', for instance? The best lyrical line on that song is 'if a mouse can be special, so can you'; how intelligent or meaningful is that? Eh? And while this is undoubtedly the low point of the album, I can't really say any of these songs get me falling under the table as the old classic material. Truly, if there's a proverbial album showing a formerly great band "losing steam" - not "having lost", mind you, but "in the visible process of losing" - this is Angst In My Pants. The All-Music Guide review actually praised the band for going back to their power pop roots on here, but the Sparks never did their power pop thing with these kinds of arrangements.

A typical example is the title track which opens the album. First, just the unimpressive boom-chuck, boom-chuck of the drum machines. Then in comes Russell and becomes singing a thoroughly unimpressive melody set to a vague scattering of misty synth clouds far far away. And apart from a brief guitar solo, there's nothing else that happens. Nothing. Russell is in good vocal form, and the erection-dedicated lyrics are mildly fun, but that's like praising the Lord that you're still alive even if you've just been run over a car and lost all your limbs. And then the next song is 'I Predict', which certainly has a different rhythm, but otherwise it's just the same combination of drum machines, minimalistic synths, ecstatic vocals and mildly amusing lyrics. What the...? If this is a return to the "power pop of old", goddammit, I want the stylistic diversity and creativity of Introducing.

Fortunately, it gets better as the songs float by. There's 'Sherlock Holmes', for instance, on which Russell does a note-for-note perfect impersonation of Marc Bolan (yeah, right down to the goat bleeting thing), so that you could change the arrangement a bit and pass this off as a previously unreleased outtake of a glorious ballad from Electric Warrior. The lyrics don't really make any sense - geez, what has Sherlock Holmes got to do with the romance? - but I guess since incomprehensible lyrics were also a major forte of T. Rex, that shouldn't cause much trouble.

'Sherlock Holmes' is possibly the best song on here, but there's also 'Nicotina', a touching ode to a cigarette ('she screamed and screamed but so much was filtered out, now Nicotina's only a tiny cloud') which actually incorporates a rare species of animal known as memorable melody, yeah buddy for sure. 'Moustache' is a cute driving synth-rocker where we finally get some light thrown on the mystery of Ron's moustache: "I tried a handlebar design, my Fu Manchu was really fine... but when I trimmed 'em really small, my Jewish friends would never call'. Ha ha. The story of children playing 'Tarzan And Jane' in the classroom is also funny, but I gotta admit the endless 'oo-wee-oo-wee-oo' chanting gets somewhat seriously annoying several minutes into the song. And the album closer, 'Eaten By The Monster Of Love', seems to me like a clever self-conscious parody on Queen, the band whose overall style was seriously inspired by Sparks themselves - the 'don't let it get me, don't let it get me' refrain sounds eerily like 'another one bites the dust!', while the verses themselves are more reminiscent of Queen's more lightweight material from the opera/lounge jazz front.

So, in fact, there is a bunch of good material on the album, and there's no need for me to get crabby, eh? But gosh, this is the Sparks for criminy's sake. And what bugs me most of all is that they didn't really run out of talent, they just seemed to think, okay, now this is the kind of music that's suitable for the day. The kind of music where nothing is really required, no instruments apart from the most basic and banal ones. And this, in a nutshell, actually demonstrates why the Seventies, what with all their excess and decadence and lack of touch with reality etc., were still a far superior musical decade to the Eighties. Yeah.



Year Of Release: 1983

Score again! Almost ended up giving this puppy four stars, but hey, it's just a wee bit monotonous to really deserve that... or maybe not. On here, the Maels end up dropping all the New Wave experimentation of the preceding two albums and go back to what made up their legend in the first place, sarcastic dance-pop. It is, in fact, closer in nature to the Moroder-produced stuff than anything else, but don't hold that up against these guys! They sure know what they're doing as they rip your speakers open with a hot dancey collaboration with Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go's, the first time, I think, when somebody makes a "guest star appearance" on a Sparks album. Maybe they were trying to score or something, in fact they probably were because 'Cool Places' managed to chart in the States. Heh. But who cares? It's a terrif number anyway, as usual ridiculing another puffed up concept, namely 'coolness' this time. I tell you, there's nobody like the Sparks to make you frantically bop your head to the music and make that same music the object of mercyless ridiculing at the same time.

Actually, the entire album seems to deal with the themes of coolness, fashion, popularity, etc., etc., playing it a bit more straightforward than the immediately preceding records. It also seems that the Maels have become entangled so much in dance rhythms they can only add superb vocal melodies when they set them to boppy knee-jerkin' synth patterns - which explains why In Outer Space contains next to no filler. The rhythms are all generic, but the vocal melodies are not - the hooks are back there! Here's 'Popularity', with a better hook in the verses than in the chorus, just watch out how Russell slides up and down as he shifts from line to line. The lyrics are somewhat amazingly simple, though, so the irony doesn't work as it used to.

Here's 'All You Ever Think About Is Sex', which hearkens back to the most robotic-sounding songs on Terminal Jive, highlighted by the 'all you ever think about is sex - all right with me' chorus. Does that line sound dumb? It does. It would take me years of hard work and heaps of spoilt paper to come up with a rational explanation of why I dig that song so much even if on a purely theoretical level it just sounds like every generic synth-pop song ever written. I guess in the end it all comes to down to the concept of irony once again, goddammit.

Same with 'Please Baby Please', even if unless you knew at least a little bit about the Sparks' history, you'd never have guessed the song should be taken tongue in cheek. But what can I do, I'm not about to resist the gorgeous vocal hooks, "shallow" as the song might be compared to more witty Sparks material. In fact, yeah, I think I got this album's problem pinned down: the lyrics are weak, just plain shockingly weak for the band's level. Put this stuff next to anything on Kimono My House and you'll see that in those ten years, the band has gone from inventing hilarious lyrical imagery all their own to merely milking all the popular song lyrical cliches. Sure they can take even the most tired cliche and turn it on its heels, but that's still disappointing.

Of course, that doesn't relate to isolated moments of brilliancy like the epochal 'and you're the only girl I ever met who hates 'Hey Jude'/maybe that's the reason that I'm so in love with you' line in the mock-rockabilly 'Rockin' Girls' (were they pulling their tongues out at the Stray Cats or what?). And that doesn't detract from the fact that 'I Wish I Looked A Little Better' is arguably one of the finest late period Sparks songs ever - check out that cute little synth line that underpins the vocal melody, isn't it genius? Funny that it hearkens back to the epoch of 'Fa La Fa Lee', too, when the Sparks were boldly stepping ahead of their time by inventing these lines - nobody would be surprised at something like this in friggin' 1983. Still, the song totally cooks. 'I went to Balboa Island/And laid in the sand/I may be ugly as sin/But at least now I'm tanned'.

Plus, the album ends on a terrific note with 'A Fun Bunch Of Guys From Outer Space', which might just explain the Sparks legend - re-assess their catalog and you would probably be able to believe them in that 'we're a fun bunch of guys here to infiltrate and get a tan', and the ultimate hilarious mock-dance send-up 'Dance Goddammit', which is intentionally slow (so you can more easily get the irony behind it) and features Russell calling out 'dance goddammit' in the most, uh, uh, uh, coooooool emotionless tone possible. The totally restrained emotionless performance on the song is the key to the whole thing - yeah, once upon a time dancing was supposed to be a fun pastime, but in 1983 dancing (at least, expert dancing) is an immaculate technique that requires you to have mathematic precision rather than any kind of emotional aura. So dance goddammit. Dance goddammit. (No exclamation marks, that'd ruin the whole thing).

So lower your expectations - you're not going to get the immaculate genius of the Sparks any more, but at least on here you're gonna get the next closest thing to it. But don't make the mistake of some of those guys on who first got acquainted with the band through this album (or any other Eighties album). It's like trying to smoke your cigar backwards or something.



Year Of Release: 1984

Lame. L-A-M-E. The first Sparks album that openly, straightforwardly, unabashedly, utterly sucks. The modern rhythms finally got the best of them - the record, at worst, sounds like totally cruddy generic synth-pop, at best, like a pale shadow of the better moments of Eighties' Sparks. And I know - many a time I have gotten the initial impression that record so-and-so is hideous, only to find out later that there are subtle melodic twists, fun lyrical elements, untrivial hooks that will have you waiting for them, and so on. Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat goes totally against its title: no miracle is going to happen with this one.

Just about everything about the album is disgusting. The melodies are painfully straightforward, with no interesting signature changes or development whatsoever - granted, it's not so much a New Wave-ish boom-thwack-boom-thwack of the Whomp That Sucker kind as it is a synth-poppy thump-chack thump-chack of Outer Space, but a rhythm is just a rhythm if it doesn't serve as the basis for something else. And what do we have here? Painfully primitive synth patterns? Generic metallic power chords to "emphasize" the songs' power? Why have these guys decided to dump their creativity down the shitter? Did the success of 'Cool Places' hit them in the head so much they decided to sell out entirely and completely? Or maybe they thought they were still playing their sarcastic tongue-in-cheek game when in fact they were just transforming into a dumb, primitive novelty act?

Just for the record, you take the title track that opens the album and count for me how many hooks are there (usually I count from three to ten different hooks in every solid Sparks tune). Okay, the chorus is moderately catchy, and Russell makes a good resolution for it in the ecstatic '...all I get is polite applause - applause, applause, applause, applause!'. That's one so-so hook. That's all. The song rolls on and on and on, with the same synth pattern repeated ad nauseam (there's also some kind of a "solo" when they repeat the same two synth chords over and over), and once you've heard the first verse you may pretty much skip to the next song. That's supposed to be the Sparks? That's an abomination.

I can't betray my faith in this band to the extent of stating that there's nothing good on the album, even if there's not a single song on here that would even make my Top 50 Sparks numbers. I am a little partial to the jovial party-fun 'Pretending To Be Drunk', which sounds like the Sparks' take on Prince's 'Jack U Off', with very similar goofy party-line synth riffs (although the fact that Sparks are now starting to take their lessons from Prince - and actually failing to beat him at his own game, even if their music was one of the roots' of Prince's success in the first place - is pretty disturbing). 'Progress' also sounds pathetically Prince-like, almost like an inferior outtake from 1999, but it does have another of those fun little choruses - not that the band spent a lot of effort to make that chorus; it's one of those simple effective melodies that Ron could probably have written in his sleep (in fact, I do pretty much believe that Pulling Rabbits was written by Ron in his sleep - in all of its entirety); no matter how dumb the repetitive 'I know it's progress!' sounds, it's still kind of a lame fun memorable thing.

'With All My Might' also has a couple calories of charm in its emotional vocal melody, but I guess the only true highlight of the album anyway is 'Sisters' - a song that I'd maybe put up at #51 on that Sparks list I've mentioned. Lyrically, it's controversial, as usual (about a threesome), but that kind of controversy might have been acute when Crosby was penning his 'Triad' in 1968; it's pretty stagnant by the times of 1984. However, the vocal melody of the song seems to me to have been written in about half an hour at least, as compared to all the others which they were probably making up as they were recording. It's a little endearing to see that old romantic flame as Russell keeps singing about this demented stuff as if it were still the mid-Seventies. The chorus is great.

That's about it. Toss in a cheesy guitar part in 'Love Scenes', and you get yourself prime mediocre Duran Duran. Toss in absolutely nothing in 'Everybody Move', and you get yourself prime mediocre Michael Jackson anyway. 'A Song That Sings Itself' is an excellent title - although more accurate would be 'A Song That Composes, Arranges, And Plays Itself Because We're Too Busy Doing Nothing Anyway'. And the idiotic two-part instrumental 'Sparks In The Dark' would have sounded dated even in 1979; now it just sounds like a senseless anachronism altogether.

No classics. No great numbers. Monotonousness. Self-repetition. I was kinda hoping that the Sparks, due to all of their sharp-tongueness and acute sarcastic approach, would not fall prey to the Eighties, but apparently they were just unable to resist the "electronic oppression" of the times. Sad.


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