As Sparks, Ron and Russell Mael — two enormously talented Los Angeles wiseacres — have influenced numerous bands through their own records and outside projects; it’s possible to trace many contemporary musical trends back to the pair’s prescient and trailblazing efforts. Although their lengthy recording career has the consistency of chunky peanut butter, some of their albums are truly wonderful in a number of stylistic modes. Sparks remain unpredictably capable of greatness each time they enter the studio.
As an art-rock quintet called Halfnelson, Sparks made their earliest, misanthropic efforts to appeal to the neurotic nouveau pop segment of 1971 America via a debut album produced by Todd Rundgren. First released as Halfnelson (by Halfnelson), it was promptly withdrawn, repackaged and reissued as Sparks (by Sparks). That original band — sort of Marlene Dietrich meets the Stooges — included Earle Mankey, who went on to become a producer (and recording artist) of some note, and his brother Jim, who later formed the chartbound Concrete Blonde. The album is a subtle and brilliant exposition of unique talent, displaying the Maels’ remarkable facility for bizarre, dadaist lyrics and Russell’s scarifying falsetto. The triumphant A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing refined, energized and improved on the first LP; it’s a demented blueprint of incomprehensible weirdness. Many hated them, few heard them, but none who did forgot them on the basis of this utterly individual effort. (Although not issued there at the time, the first two LPs were packaged together and reissued in Britain after the group’s success.)
Moving to London and recruiting an all-new set of sidemen, keyboardist Ron and singer Russell hooked up with producer Muff Winwood and made a series of singles (many included on the first two Island albums) that turned them into enormously popular glam-pop teen idols. Mixing prolix and profoundly funny wordplay with killer hooks and a solid guitar-and-piano-based sound, Sparks were the forerunners (and, to some extent, instigators) of the skinny tie Anglo-pop revival that swept America a few years later. Two brilliant albums (Kimono My House and Propaganda) worked that irresistible formula, but the gimmickry wore thin; Indiscreet, produced pompously by Tony Visconti, has some terribly boring, unbelievably overblown numbers amidst the succinct pop smashes. Sparks were outgrowing bubblegum.
Their lock on the top of Britain’s charts ended, the Maels fired their band and returned to America to begin a very bad career patch, starting with Big Beat. They benefit from a bit of leftover momentum (and perhaps material) from their previous work, but it’s basically a poor homecoming. (The band for this record included head Tuff Dart Jeff Salen on guitar, ex-Milk ‘n’ Cookies bassist Sal Maida and drummer Hilly Michaels.) The far worse Introducing, recorded with LA session men, is Sparks’ creative nadir.
The group’s complex saga then began to involve Giorgio Moroder, who produced No. 1 in Heaven, converting the one-time pure-guitar-poppers into a driving Euro-disco synthesizer machine, pounding out repetitive drum-laden dance grooves. Only semi-successful, musically speaking, it does deserve credit for predating the entry of countless other rock groups onto the high-tech dance-floor. Terminal Jive, the only Sparks album not released in the US, tempers the funk but suffers a serious personality loss, the result of the Maels’ co-writing too much of the material with others.
Leaving the disco behind, Sparks next began an alliance with a Moroder associate, German producer Mack. They recorded Whomp That Sucker in Munich with their first steady band since Indiscreet: David Kendrick, Leslie Bohem and Bob Haag (who also work on their own as Gleaming Spires). The songs reclaim some of Sparks’ early pop wit, but with new maturity and dignity. A definite improvement, it’s still a transitional record, leading the Maels out of the creative woods with some ace numbers, but they’re still not at peak power.
Angst in My Pants, however, is that promise fulfilled, a top-notch collection of tunes with offbeat humor, winning melodies and excellent arrangements, displaying the benefits of touring with a band. It’s the first new Sparks album that belongs alongside Woofer and Kimono. The self-produced In Outer Space features Jane Wiedlin (of the Go-Go’s) duetting with Russell on two songs, and is a mixed creative success due to songs that drag and a shortage of stunning lyrics. The equally inconclusive Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat, produced by Ian Little, has better material, less personality and only a few outstanding tracks. Perhaps tiring of unrewarded cleverness, the album’s most durable effort is “With All My Might,” a syrupy ballad distinguished by its plainspoken emotionalism.
Hooking up with yet another record label (but keeping the band intact), Sparks next made Music That You Can Dance To, an aggressively loud high-energy dance record — dynamic keyboards, mock-symphonic arrangements and Bohem’s bass play a large part — that has its moments (the title track, “Change,” “The Scene”) and its mistakes (a painful version of Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips”). Clever lyrics help, as does the Maels’ inventive self-production. (In an outrageous attempt to mislead, Curb’s 1990 CD reissue of the album is titled The Best of Sparks: Music That You Can Dance To.)
The patchy Interior Design was recorded in Russell’s home studio with just a keyboard player and a guitarist, making it the first bandless outing since Terminal Jive. Despite a few good songs (“The Toughest Girl in Town,” the dance-happy “So Important”), reliance on synthesizers leaves the album sounding choppy and monochromatic. The CD adds three songs: “Madonna,” “Big Brass Ring” and “So Important.”
The 1979 British compilation has the group’s six hits (1974-’75) and another half-dozen tracks from the same era. Besides reprising half of Terminal Jive, the ’81 French compilation includes three songs from No. 1 in Heaven, two each from Woofer and Whomp That Sucker, and the first LP’s “Wonder Girl.”
At 20 tracks, Mael Intuition is less a compilation of Sparks’ three Island albums than a listener’s digest of them. Still, the choice of omissions is not without flaws: “Talent Is an Asset”? “Who Don’t Like Kids”? “How Are You Getting Home?”? This is a good introduction, but it’s no substitute for the original albums (nor a good excuse for their unavailability on CD). Profile is a career-spanning two-disc/two-cassette compilation of album tracks plus a few rarities. The CD has eight bonus tunes.
Whether presenting their ingenious creations as wily art-pop, British glam bubblegum, mock opera, American rock or disco workouts, the Maels have clung to their absurdity with the tenacity of Julio Iglesias to romance. Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins, the Maels’ first new disc in seven years, is typically febrile and giddy, contagiously danceable synth music with Russell’s helium-tinged vocal exercises. On “I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car,” he is obsessively layered into choruses of arch hysteria. The lyrics drop famous names with the panache of a gossip columnist. Sid Vicious crops up in “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way'”; there’s “The Ghost of Liberace” and “(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing.” Admittedly, there are many who can not stand the duo, but those in the swing get musical treats from Sparks they can get nowhere else. A solid return to form.