Band Rating: 4

  • Sparks
  • A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing
  • Kimono My House
  • Propaganda
  • Indiscreet
  • Big Beat
  • Introducing Sparks
  • No. 1 In Heaven
  • Terminal Jive
  • Whomp That Sucker
  • Angst In My Pants
  • In Outer Space
  • Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat
  • Music That You Can Dance To
  • Interior Design
  • Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins
  • Plagiarism
  • Balls
  • Lil' Beethoven
  • Hello Young Lovers
  • Exotic Creatures Of The Deep
  • The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman

    Sparks (1971)
    Page Rating: 10
    Overall Rating: 14

    The Mael brothers were nothing if not prescient, and thus when listening to their revolutionary debut one will encounter the genesis of new wave, the roots of synth pop and the seeds of operatic rock. The Mael brothers not only predict these musical movements but likewise employ them with the utmost craftsmanship and precision, achieving heights in these genres that the subsequent, better known practitioners of these styles will never attain.

    Sparks have a truly unique sound on this album, blending the aforementioned new wave dynamics, synth pop elements and operatic overtones, along with doo wop digressions, hard rock facets, music hall interludes and glam posturing. Their diversity is incredible, but better still it's married to the Mael brothers' unparalleled gift for conjuring stunning hooks and brilliant melodies, resulting in pop music of the very highest order.

    Few groups seemingly effortlessly generate hyper catchy tunes with the speed and regularity of Sparks, as the Mael brothers' musical acumen permeates every song, transfiguring each track into pop nirvana. The melodies that the brothers appear to compose with such ease are universally first rate, creative and unforgettable, with nothing even approaching filler appearing on their debut.

    Furthermore the brothers' songwriting strengths aren't confined to music alone. Their lyrics are amongst the best to ever grace a pop song, with sharp, intelligent and often hilarious words appearing on every track. The brothers achieve an excellent contrast with their catchy pop placed alongside often dark, cynical lyrics, compounding the potency of both at once.

    While the instrumentation is thoroughly unremarkable that's hardly a major defect, for as long as the arrangements convey the melodies well it doesn't matter if a given musician lacks a virtuoso instrumental prowess. The players provide perfectly adequate backing for Russell Mael's eccentric, charming vocals, and that's all that's really needed of them.

    Being a pop guru himself, Todd Rundgren, in his capacity as the album's producer, always knows how to get the most out of Sparks' melodies, with studio treatments that fully complement the material without ever overproducing it.

    The listener will encounter pop classics like the irresistible Wonder Girl, the bouncy keyboard driven incestuous fantasizing of Fa La Fa Lee, the multipart, infectious High C which seamlessly shifts from dark pop to doo wop and back, the beautiful Slowboat and the anthemic closer (No More) Mr. Nice Guys.

    Better still is the album's centerpiece, the haunting, minimalist Fletcher Honorama, with ominous lyrics and a tenebrous tone. Like every other song present on the album it's insanely catchy, with its dark atmospherics never obstructing or diluting said catchiness. Its coda is simultaneously chilling yet fun to sing along with, a brilliant balance that the Mael brothers managed to achieve with their mastery of the genre.

    Ultimately Sparks' eponymous debut is a timeless pop classic, filled with incredible hooks, unprecedented diversity and countless innovations. How influential the album was can be debated, as it's likely that few rock stars ever listened to it, but nevertheless it's undeniably ahead of its time, a cutting edge product that single-handedly could have spawned a musical revolution if only it had sold better.

    Every song on here offers imaginative hooks and memorable melodies, a testament to the brothers' seemingly limitless pop songwriting abilities. No matter what style a given track is in it's always catchy, poised to irrevocably claim a space in the listener's mental jukebox.

    Even without its historical relevance the album is unbeatable, as it's simply a deeply enjoyable experience, fun to absorb and sing along to. Pop is rarely this idiosyncratic and imaginative, and these qualities further enhance the already incredibly catchy material. Thus the album is a must buy for all music lovers, with its triumvirate of catchiness, diversity and innovation resulting in an incredible product that still sounds as fresh and creative as when it was first released.

    A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing (1972)
    Page Rating: 9
    Overall Rating: 13

    When compared to Sparks' adventurous debut A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing seems like a somewhat conservative outing; it's essentially more of the same, and while risks are taken they're the same risks that were already taken on their previous record. The eponymous debut was a truly revolutionary sonic experience, shattering the music industry's preconceived notions of the of the limits of pop, while on their follow up the Mael brothers seem content to explore already established territory, and while their melodies are as creative as ever, from a stylistic perspective the LP is something of a retread.

    A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing certainly sounds far ahead of its time, but only by coasting off the innovations made on Sparks' first album. This is hardly a reprehensible crime, as by no means is a given group obligated to redefine the musical medium on every outing, but nevertheless it somewhat dispels the freshness of the experience; whereas their debut was overflowing with imaginative musical ideas, their subsequent outing is content to simply build upon these ideas, refining already established concepts as opposed to blazing a new trail for themselves.

    Once one gets past the dearth of pioneering musical enterprises they'll find, however, that A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing is another great album from the band, filled with hyper catchy hooks and incredible melodies. The Mael brothers' facility for songwriting remains fully intact, resulting in more timeless tunes from one of the elite pop outfits in the world of their era's music.

    Classics abound, from the dark, menacing Moon Over Kentucky to the cheerful anecdote of a man who makes friends via vehicular collisions in Here Comes Bob to the irresistible opener Girl From Germany to the extremely catchy Nothing Is Sacred. While the collective quality of the tracks may not match the caliber of their material on their debut, the songs remain pop of the highest order, boasting meticulously crafted melodies and unpredictable hooks.

    Not every song adheres to these lofty standards, as the band's rather pedestrian cover of Do Re Mi is wholly extraneous (not to mention the fact that the very notion of Sparks delivering covers is absurd, as their strength lies in their songwriting as opposed to their performances) and the French language interlude The Louvre is woefully unspectacular, but even these tracks are far from bad, merely inferior when compared to the brilliance of the rest of the content.

    The production falters when compared to Rundgren's studio treatment, as whereas that pop icon fully understood the dynamics of the group Thaddeus James Lowe seems somewhat at a loss in comprehending the band's strengths, resultantly making the questionable decision of emphasizing the guitarwork over the keyboards and vocals in the mix, a maneuver that's hardly conducive to Sparks' style wherein the vocals and keyboards are the integral parts in the melodies. This doesn't mar the album to any great degree, however, as the quality of the songs invariably still shines through.Ultimately A Woofer In Tweeter's clothing delivers more pop excellence from the band, continuing right where the debut left off. With the template already in place the group capitalized on the strides they'd made on their first album, resulting in an array of great tracks that may be in the style of their previous outing but nevertheless are brilliant songs in their own right.

    While not quite up to the standards of their debut, Sparks' sophomore effort remains a pop classic; the Mael brothers are still in their prime as far as songwriting is concerned, while the musicians are still fully adept at realizing the brothers' musical visions. The album is yet more pop perfection from the band, with no signs of deterioration or stagnation on any level.

    Kimono My House (1974)
    Page Rating: 10
    Overall Rating: 14

    Driven by their pronounced dearth of sales the Mael brothers went into self-imposed exile in the UK, where they finally achieved at least a modicum of the commercial success they so richly deserved. Kimono My House yielded two hits singles, and purchases of the album proper far exceeded the paltry sales of their work in their domestic market.

    As a result of this relocation the Mael brothers lost their collaborators, and from this point forward it would be them alone who'd appear on their albums with any degree of consistency. By and large non-keyboard instrumentation would be delegated to session musicians, leaving the brothers as the only true creative force in the band.

    As one would anticipate, the departures of their bandmates had virtually no impact on the quality of the Mael brother's subsequent material; after all, they were the true songwriters in the group, and in terms of conveying their melodies it was Russell's vocals and Ron's keyboards that always came first and foremost.

    As for Kimono My House itself, it's simply one of the very best albums for vocal melodies in the history of the medium, with track after track of insanely catchy hooks in Russell Mael's delivery. This isn't to denigrate the instrumental hooks, but ultimately it's the vocal melodies that truly elevate the album to the pinnacle of the genre, with This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us, Amateur Hour, Here In Heaven and Equator in particular boasting four of the most incredible vocal melodies of all time.

    From a melodic perspective the album is immaculate, with song after song attaining the level of pop perfection. Everything falls into place to produce some of the catchiest, most memorable melodies of all time, from Russell's assortment of vocal tricks (his falsetto is still unparalleled) to Ron's wonderful keyboard work to some of the greatest pop songwriting ever to be found on disc.

    Once again the lyrics complement the music perfectly, with biting, sharp, satiric material that often borders on hilarity, ensuring that the band never has to rely on music alone. From a man bemoaning his partner's failure to hold up her end of a joint suicide, thus stranding him alone in heaven, tormented by her continual good health, to the narcissistic glee of Falling In Love With Myself Again, to the confusion of a couple who were supposed to meet at the equator, the album is filled with clever, intelligent and idiosyncratic lyrics to match the sonic brilliance of the music.

    While it lacks the diversity of Sparks' debut it more than compensates for this deficiency with the sheer consistency of its incredible material, eclipsing both of its predecessors in this regard. While it may not be better than their eponymous outing, it's certainly on a comparable level, offering track after track of truly first rate pop, music at its most creative and memorable.

    Kimono My House is a truly deserving classic; it's the band's best known outing, and with its accessible, hyper catchy pop it's easy to see why. It certainly isn't the band's only album to be worthy of such praise, but perhaps this will enable the LP to act as a sort of gateway into the group, as anyone who hears Kimono My House is apt to want to hunt down the rest of their more obscure work.

    The album is simply flabbergastingly good, one of the most purely entertaining listens in the realm of pop. It can be recommended without reservation to any fan of pop music, and is obviously a must have for any follower of the group. Reviewers are often at a loss for how to categorize the band, and thus the album's been branded everything from glam to dance pop, with songs like This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us often being classified as a precursor to Queen with its fusion of irresistible pop and hard rock; ultimately whatever label the album receives is irrelevant, however, as its very ability to defy categorization is indicative of what a special album it is. Regardless of what one labels the album as its melodies are a universal language, and will thus appeal to any music fans regardless of genre biases. The album is simply excellent, and its excellence should transcend any jaded preconceptions of rock music fans.

    Propaganda (1974)
    Page Rating: 10
    Overall Rating: 14

    How to follow up a masterpiece is always a difficult dilemma for a rock group, and thus Sparks, on the heels of what was close to the ideal pop album, were left with quite a conundrum. Any LP they produced would invariably be left in the shadow of the immaculate Kimono My House, an inevitable comparison that could serve to severely damage their subsequent output.

    A stylistic shift could alienate Sparks' newfound fanbase cultivated by the success of Kimono My House, an audience that were apt to be intolerant of anything that wasn't largely reminiscent of the album that introduced them to the group, while a simple case of more of the same could be perceived as a rehash and lead to stagnation.

    Nevertheless the band opted for the latter choice, as Propaganda rather overtly treats its predecessor as the blueprints for its structure. This could have been a disastrous decision, a stubborn refusal to make any progressions with their sound, were it not for the simple fact that, while Propaganda certainly imitates Kimono My House, it remains on a similar level when it comes to the band's performances and songwriting.

    Spurred on by the unprecedented (for the woefully commercially neglected group, that is) success of Kimono My House, the Mael brothers decided to capitalize on this turn of their fortunes as rapidly as possible, thus recording and releasing a second album in the same year as their breakthrough effort. While it's apparent that Propaganda was rushed out, the haste of its development is never betrayed throughout the brilliant album, as the songwriting and performances are impeccable throughout.

    As stated before, while the influence of Kimono My House is evident throughout the album, Propaganda compares favorably with its predecessor, boasting the same kind of exceptional melodies, plentiful hooks and intelligent lyrics that had made their previous outing such an incredible accomplishment.

    Once again there's no filler; tracks like B.C., in the height of its primitivism, are certainly lesser when compared to the album's peak material, but every track still sports a memorable, catchy melody.

    Highlights include At Home At Work At Play with its parade of stellar vocal melodies, Reinforcements with its complex yet hyper catchy vocal melody, the unforgettable interplay between the music and lyrics of Thanks But No Thanks, the deceptively gentle hit single Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth and the album's second single, the infectious Something For The Girl With Everything.

    While Propaganda will irrevocably be remembered as the sequel to Kimono My House it has more than enough substance to stand on its own, an excellent album in is own right. Sparks were at their creative peak at this stage of their careers, resulting in album after album of pop masterpieces.

    While Kimono My House was a remarkable achievement, being able to follow it up with an album of similar quality is a true testament to the Mael brothers' genius. Between these two records Sparks owned 1974, dominating the year with two timeless pop classics.

    In the end, when Propaganda is assessed independently of its predecessor it emerges as a pop masterpiece, filled with brilliant hooks and melodies. However, even when judged in the context of its release the album is still an exceptional masterwork, yet more evidence of the Mael brothers' limitless pop acumen.

    Indiscreet (1975)
    Page Rating: 8
    Overall Rating: 12

    The Mael brothers realized that if they continued to fundamentally remake the same album over and over again then no amount of songwriting talent could protect them from the inevitable onset of stagnation. Thus on Indiscreet, for the first time in quite awhile the band endeavors to differentiate their latest work from all that's come before, with predictably mixed results.

    This attempt at musical progression largely manifests itself in the form of genre exercises; thus Indiscreet depicts the band employing a big band treatment, engaging in cabaret style interludes, adopting operatic overtones and assuming Broadway-ish elements, amongst others. This was the first exhibition of their musical versatility since their eminently diverse debut, and it helps the album distinguish itself from the band's recent outings.

    Needless to say, however, this infusion of diversity into the mix resulted in a far smaller commercial success when compared to the album's two immediate predecessors, indicative of their audience's desire for fewer departures and deviations from the group's usual norm. Apparently the record buying public had pigeonholed the band, and wouldn't accept anything that didn't coincide with their conception of what the group should be, in this particular case making it abundantly clear that all they wanted from them was a steady stream of thinly veiled Kimono My House remakes.

    This was an unfortunate reaction from their narrow-minded fan base, as it threatened to impede the band's artistic development. Nevertheless it's true that Indiscreet was Sparks' weakest outing to this point; it still contains more creative, deftly implemented musical ideas than many pop outfits' entire catalogues, but when measured against the colossally high standards the band had set for themselves one will find a somewhat weaker final product, with moderately fewer memorable melodies and a somewhat diminished supply of hooks.

    This is to be expected; after crafting four nearly perfect pop albums it's inevitable that a degree of creative exhaustion will take place, and thankfully the symptoms of this affliction are kept to a bare minimum on this outing. Nonetheless the qualitative drop off is certainly tangible, preventing the album from reaching its full potential.

    As I'd said, however, this deterioration is rather mild, as most of the songs are still quite strong by any standards. From the catchy Happy Hunting Ground to the beautiful The Lady Is Lingering to the memorable Miss The Start, Miss The End the tracks are, for the most part, up to the band's usual level.

    Unfortunately the record is indeed a somewhat erratic experience; nothing is overtly offensive, but songs like the clumsy In The Future add little to the album, perhaps even going so far as to detract from it.

    I'd be remiss in not mentioning the bonus tracks. There's an over orchestrated cover of the Beatles' I Wanna Hold Your Hand which is intriguing on a novelty level but constitutes little more than a brief curiosity. England, on the other end, is quite an impressive number, on par with some of the album proper's better tracks.

    Ultimately Indiscreet is far more of a success than a failure. It certainly has some lesser tracks, a problem further exacerbated by the inevitable comparisons to the superior previous albums, but it compensates for this with a number of strong tracks that counteract the filler predicament.

    The album's variety is a double edged sword; diversity is always welcome, as are risks from a band overly mired in safe repetition, but these stylistic experiments don't always yield positive results. Tracks like Get In The Swing, the band's attempt at a rallying anthem, can grow grating in its overproduced excesses, and Looks, Looks, Looks, despite its pretensions and hope to capture a cabaret type atmosphere never really amounts to much.

    More often than not, however, the band's diversity pays off, and the album has more than its share of full fledged successes. While weaker than the immaculate first four Sparks outings Indiscreet remains yet another great pop excursion from the group; the record displays everything that made the first four albums such artistic triumphs, albeit in a lesser quantity and a somewhat diluted form, marred by the occasional misfire. Indiscreet is hardly inundated with filler, however, and in the long run the album atones for its lesser fare with the Mael brothers' signature brand of excellent pop songwriting. The album isn't a true misstep, hardly constituting a blemish in the group's discography, it's merely a sign that the group was human, incapable of producing an absolute masterpiece on every single outing.

    Big Beat (1976)
    Page Rating: 9
    Overall Rating: 13

    Perhaps dispirited by their declining sales in the UK, the Mael brothers opted to return to America for another attempt at achieving mainstream success in their native country. While this proved to be a futile endeavor it's evident throughout Big Beat that the band is trying their hardest to craft a commercial breakthrough, modifying their sound to appeal to a broader spectrum of demographics.

    This alteration of the Sparks formula primarily manifests itself in the arrangement of the songs; the tracks on Big Beat rock considerably more than the comparatively mild material on previous albums, from the driving boogie of Fill-Er-Up to the hard rock of Big Boy. Distorted guitars are prevalent throughout the duration of the album, with rough guitar tones transfiguring the band's signature pop into far heavier fare.

    While this hard rock reinvention wasn't a commercial success, it was certainly an artistic one. The heavy overtones on the album complement the group's pop dynamics remarkably well, never marring, obstructing or diluting the group's trademark hooks or melodies.

    Furthermore, this harder edge helps Big Beat differentiate itself from its predecessors without sacrificing the group's inherent pop gifts. While the content rocks far more, this never comes at the expense of the band's pop side, which manages to coexist with the group's newfound heaviness without compromising either aspect of the band.

    There's no filler on the album, merely track after track of extremely catchy pop rockers. Highlights include the eccentrically charming and musically brilliant I Bought The Mississippi River, the misanthropic yet tongue-in-cheek anthem Everybody's Stupid and the infectious bonus track Gone With The Wind.

    While Big Beat doesn't boast much in the way of immortal Sparks classics of the caliber of This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us or Fletcher Honorama, it manages to be a vastly consistent outing, with each track sporting a memorable melody and sharp, often hilarious lyrics. The album doesn't quite reach the level of Kimono My House or Propaganda, but it's still an extraordinarily enjoyable listen, providing ample entertainment with its array of hook-filled pop rockers.

    Ultimately, while Big Beat was a disappointment from a sales perspective it's by no means a letdown from a qualitative vantage point. The decision to rock more was one of the first major risks that band had undertaken, and it's a resounding success, enabling the Mael brothers to preserve their trademark style while still trying something new to freshen their sound and evade stagnation. While releasing more albums in this mold may have grown tiresome, on Big Beat the Mael brothers' gambit works perfectly, an effective departure from their customary template.

    Thus Big Beat is yet another pop masterpiece from the group, retaining all of the group's strengths while still trying something different. The endless pop hooks, the band's playful nature and the memorable melodies are all translated into this new context intact, and the result is another great outing for the group, a return to form after the disappointing (but still quite strong in its own right) Indiscreet. Sparks fans shouldn't allow themselves to be deterred by the album's heavier edge, as they'll still find everything that attracted them to the band in the first place firmly in place, merely cloaked in a different guise.

    Introducing Sparks (1977)
    Page Rating: 9
    Overall Rating: 13

    After the lackluster commercial reception of Big Beat it's understandable that Sparks would eschew the approach taken on their unsuccessful outing and revert to their previous style. Thus when listening to the amusingly titled (though this joking nomenclature likely convinced members of the record buying public that this was indeed their debut, which could have been detrimental to its sales) Introducing Sparks it's as if the heavy arrangements and distorted guitars of Big Beat never happened, with these trappings of the hard rock genre replaced with the poppier sound that permeated albums like Kimono My House and Propaganda.

    While this could be perceived as a regression, and at the very least a blatant shunning of musical progression, the album is once again saved by the incredible songwriting of the group. Introducing Sparks is yet another immaculate pop album, filled with creative, memorable hooks and unforgettable melodies.

    Fortunately the Mael brothers cultivate at least a modicum of diversity on the album, with tracks like the bluesy Girls On The Brain, the Beach Boys send up Over The Summer and the parody of quixotic philosophizing Those Mysteries.

    For the most part, however, the songs adhere to the band's usual musical style, though they do so with more than enough creativity and craftsmanship that it's easy to overlook the group's arrested development.

    Highlights include the wonderful vocal melodies of A Big Surprise, the hyper catchy Occupation with its hilarious dissection of myriad career alternatives, the lovely Ladies and the slacker anthem Goofing Off.

    Once again the album is bereft of filler, as the band injects more than enough substance into the tracks so that each song can stand on its own as an impressive musical achievement.

    While admittedly the vast majority of the songs sound as if they could be culled from any of the band's pre-Big Beat albums, this works both ways, as they're all sufficiently strong that they could fit in with the brilliant material on those pop masterpieces. One could indeed make a compelling case of charging their work with stylistic uniformity, but with content of this caliber it's an empty accusation, a complaint that may be valid but is ultimately irrelevant.

    In the long run Introducing Sparks is another pop classic from a group with an incomparable facility for strong songwriting. At this stage in their career the band could do no wrong, as evidence by the album's proliferation of amazing hooks and melodies. The band's output from this period is invariably pop of the highest order, as the Mael brothers conjure stunning melody after stunning melody without ever 'borrowing' any ideas from their contemporaries or even betraying any signs of direct influences. The band's work is universally original, a parade of clever melodies derived from the limitless creativity of the band alone.

    Introducing Sparks is a difficult album to find, as the only version committed to CD is an obscure import that also, seemingly arbitrarily, contains 1988's Interior Design in its entirety. Nevertheless any fan of Sparks owes it to himself to track the album down, as it's an indispensable part of the band discography, yet another LP that displays the group's talents to their fullest extent, which, as proven time and time again by the Mael brothers, can yield only stellar results.

    No. 1 In Heaven (1979)
    Page Rating: 8
    Overall Rating: 12

    Continually afflicted with lackluster sales despite the strength of their work, the Mael brothers attempted to reinvent themselves once again, ideally striking upon a style more conducive to garnering mainstream acceptance than their usual brand of satirical pop. To this end they recruited disco guru Giorgio Moroder, a match that one would assume would irredeemably sabotage any project that was connected with it. Fortunately the band's partnership with the father of disco proved far more artistically successful than one would dare to hope, an unnatural union that nevertheless yielded ultimately positive results.

    Whether or not No. 1 In Heaven is truly disco is debatable; some would simply label it dance pop or proto-techno or some fusion of these elements. What's undeniable, however, is that the album's sound is the band's most radical departure from their norm, as far removed from the style of Kimono My House as the band had ever grown to this point in their careers.

    Nevertheless, while the sound cultivated on No. 1 In Heaven is vastly different from their erstwhile formula, it still boasts many of the properties that made the band who they were, albeit manifesting themselves in different forms. While the songwriting passes through a pseudo-disco filter, it remains as strong as ever, resulting in an album that sports as many hooks as any of their previous work.

    Strong melodies abound, from the anthemic Tryouts For The Human Race to the venomous Academy Award Performance to the catchy Beat The Clock to the gorgeous My Other Voice to the stately The Number One Song In Heaven to the album's best cut, the irresistible La Dolce Vita.

    The album is far from perfect, however. There are only six songs on the record, and thus they're all protracted to unnecessary degrees. Rather than being extended to accommodate a plethora of creative musical ideas in each song, the tracks are artificially elongated through the medium of chronic repetition which causes some numbers to grow exceedingly monotonous on occasions.

    Each song has a great melody, but the music can be fully conveyed to the listener within a far shorter time frame than the tracks are allotted; ergo the lengths of the songs are truly unreasonable, and serve to only dilute the quality of the hooks. The songs, with their endlessly recurring sections, uniformly border on redundancy, a defect that was nowhere to be found on any of the band's previous work.

    Furthermore, even with these overly drawn out tracks the album is still egregiously short, clocking in at barely above thirty minutes, signifying that despite the quality of its melodies the record was rushed out before the band had amassed enough unique material for a full fledged LP. Whereas the Mael brothers were once overflowing with imaginative musical ideas, on No. 1 In Heaven they were barely able to muster enough strong material to fill an EP before their excessive song extensions.

    Nevertheless, the quality of the melodies is definitely still sufficiently strong to merit a very high grade for the album. Even if they are overlong, the tracks remain universally enjoyable, with unforgettable melodies that equate to pop music at its finest. The music is complex yet very catchy, while the album contains myriad techno effects yet still sounds vibrant and organic.

    In all No. 1 Heaven is another pop masterpiece from the group. It certainly has its share of flaws, but they're redeemed by the amazing caliber of the material. There are plentiful hooks to be found, while the performances are all impeccable. Russell Mael's vocals are, as always, exceptional, be it his trademark falsetto on Tryouts For The Human Race or his edgier delivery on the verses of La Dolce Vita.

    While it's understandable that a Sparks fan would be dubious of a collaboration with the ever (justifiably) vilified Moroder, growing especially skeptical of an album by the group with disco elements, fortunately one's worst fear can be assuaged by the high quality of No. 1 In Heaven, a record truly worthy of the Sparks name.

    Terminal Jive (1979)
    Page Rating: 7
    Overall Rating: 11

    One curse of being a prescient pop outfit is that, in addition to anticipating exciting new creative ideas, you may also predict the more noxious trends in the music industry. Hence Terminal Jive, an album drenched in appalling eighties production values shortly before the eighties had dawned on the world of pop.

    Thus the album's opener When I'm With You (which inexplicably became the band's biggest hit in France) is coated with the slick, glossy sheen of the coming era, a product of eighties overproduction through and through. Fortunately it possesses a sufficiently strong melody to compensate for these sonic defects, but the track still makes it all too clear that the eighties were coming and that the Mael brothers were all too willing to succumb to its seductive grasp.

    Moroder doesn't even constitute a viable scapegoat on this occasion, for only some aspects of this eighties infestation can be attributed to him, as he only filled the role of producer for several of these tracks. The rest were composed and recorded without his involvement, exonerating him of the heinous aural atrocities committed elsewhere on the record.

    Greatly exacerbating this production crisis is the erratic nature of the group's songwriting on this outing. The instrumental rendition of When I'm With You is pure filler, as the song barely amounts to much without Russell Mael's vocals, resulting in a waste of space that adds nothing to either the song it's based upon or the album itself. Elsewhere Just Because You Love Me is a remarkably generic effort from a group generally overflowing with personality and creativity, while tracks like Stereo are somewhat on the bland side.

    None of these tracks are bad (though the instrumental is utterly superfluous on every level), but they fail to live up to the band's lofty standards, and their flaws are infinitely compounded by the grating production techniques.

    The album boasts its fair share of quality material, however; there are no true classics present, but the brothers' facility for songwriting has hardly atrophied, resulting in quite a few memorable melodies.

    The aforementioned When I'm With You transcends its prototypical eighties production with a clever synthline and pretty vocal melodies, while Rock 'N' Roll People In A Disco World is a self-referential indictment of rock groups trend hopping to evade allegations of dinosaurism.

    Young Girls and Noisy Boys are each entertaining tunes about their respective genders (though the former comes dangerously close to sounding like an advocacy of pedophilia, though I strongly doubt that's meant to be taken the least bit seriously), and the album's best cut is the hyper catchy The Greatest Show On Earth with an irresistible refrain and a plethora of memorable hooks.

    Ultimately Terminal Jive is a solid, albeit frustrating, experience. The majority of the tunes are quite good, but they're often marred by the production, and there are several cuts that simply lack the stellar craftsmanship of the band's usual fare. Nevertheless Terminal Jive remains quite a strong outing, though it's decisively weaker than all of the group's preceding products.

    Whomp That Sucker (1981)
    Page Rating: 6
    Overall Rating: 10

    The Mael brothers finally managed to wrest themselves from the clutches of the Draconian disco purveyor Giorgio Moroder, only to prove that his guiding presence wasn't necessarily deleterious to the quality of their last couple of albums. The slick eighties sheen is gone, as are many of the disco elements that were ubiquitous on their collaborations with the Antichrist of rock music, not to mention the fact that guitars are far more prevalent on this outing; nevertheless the overall quality of the album is on the decline, with a paucity of hooks and compelling melodies.

    The fact that creative exhaustion was inevitable after all these years of top quality outings does little to cushion the blow of one of pop's most gifted songwriters finally showing tangible signs of deterioration. None of the songs are actively bad, but nearly all suffer with regards to catchiness and memorability, with a pronounced dearth of hooks and a glaring lack of diversity.

    At least Moroder's relationship with the band gave the group a measure of focus, with a conscious emphasis on disco stylistics; Whomp That Sucker is a far more desultory affair, as Sparks merely meander around in familiar territory, not only doing little to distinguish the songs from past work but actually doing little to even differentiate them from each other. The album often feels monotonous, as many of the tracks are simply far too reminiscent of one another.

    This is often a repercussion of the predictability and primitivism of many of the numbers; with songs this basic, it's natural that many of their elements would overlap. This is a huge shock coming from a band as gifted, imaginative and multifaceted as Sparks, and can severely disillusion many a fan of the group.

    Despite these deficiencies, however, Whomp That Sucker remains a solid album. While myriad tracks fail to register as being especially memorable, they're entertaining enough while their on. The hooks may not be of either the quality nor quantity of past outings, but they're still certainly pleasant, even if they provide less immediate gratification.

    The lyrics are as strong as ever, which greatly helps to elevate the weaker tracks above their otherwise feeble caliber. Few of the songs need this assistance, however; nearly every track has at least something to offer on a musical level, even if they lack substance when compared to their earlier work.

    Whomp That Sucker is a decent enough outing, it simply bears the burden of being the product of one of the greatest, most idiosyncratic pop outfits in the history of the form, which greatly magnifies its defects and makes its merits seem paltry in comparison with their previous output. There are no instant classics or standout tracks; in truth after a listen the songs will invariably blend together with no immediate tools to isolate any given number. Yet, in the long run, the album can be quite enjoyable while it's on, and thus ultimately constitutes some decent enough fare from a group that was still incapable of crafting a truly bad album (alas, they would indeed reach that point in the future).

    Angst In My Pants (1982)
    Page Rating: 6
    Overall Rating: 10

    By this point in Sparks' career it's apparent that their eighties incarnation was more concerned with commercial success than artistic success; eschewing their erstwhile pretensions they generated albums like Angst In My Pants, wherein they were more occupied with producing danceable rhythms than actual musical melodies. They aspired to little more than being a moderately successful dance-pop outfit, forsaking their old trend setting tendencies in favor of following trends themselves.

    Hence albums like Angst In My Pants which, while eminently danceable, had a paucity of strong melodies and a pronounced lack of the band's usual meticulous craftsmanship applied to it. Once displaying a rich palette of sounds, the band is now dominated by sterile drum machines providing danceable beats while the vocals and other instruments are buried in the mix, scarcely audible amidst the pounding, throbbing percussion.

    All the same, the Mael brothers had yet to produce a bad album, and Angst In My Pants doesn't differ in this department. While less consistent than its predecessor, Angst In My Pants actually has some genuine highlights that eclipse the best material from Whomp That Sucker.

    These highlights include the smokers' anthem Nicotina and the catchy, offbeat Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately there are also some overtly bad songs on the album for the first time in the band's career, such as the utter misfire Mickey Mouse and the insipid Instant Weight Loss. While not a bad song itself, Tarzan And Jane contains a consummately grating refrain that sabotages the rest of the track and, while often touted as the album's magnum opus, the title track, with lyrics pertaining to staving off unwanted erections, never really amounts to much, with a dearth of well defined hooks or memorable melodies.

    These egregious missteps certainly detract from the overall experience, but they aren't sufficient to warrant a condemnation of the whole album. The aforementioned highlights greatly ameliorate the quality of the record, while lesser tracks like I Predict are perfectly enjoyable as well.

    Unfortunately there's little to counter the assertion that the band was in a profound downward spiral, a creative decline that oddly enough coincided with rising domestic sales. It's difficult to determine if this superficial dance-pop persona for the band was designed to pander to a wider audience of if they're simply hiding behind this less demanding primitivism to mask their deteriorating craftsmanship, but either way the group was very clearly in dire straits from a creative perspective, exacerbated by their instrumental nods to their eighties context (particularly the ubiquitous drum machines which invariably would be the center of each song).

    Nevertheless the band retained enough of their faculties to produce yet another enjoyable experience. It's a decidedly slight, lesser album in the band's canon, but it's still far from bad (though that's obviously the direction in which they were heading), with enough merits to keep it entertaining. Ergo it can still be recommended to fans of the band, provided they have appropriately lowered expectation for it.

    In Outer Space (1983)
    Page Rating: 8
    Overall Rating: 12

    The sound of In Outer Space is the most reminiscent of the band's material under the mentorship of Giorgio Moroder, and while the father of disco is infamous for tainting any musical product he touches counter intuitively enough this resemblance is one of the album's greatest assets.

    The fact of the matter is that on albums like No. 1 In Heaven Sparks displayed a greater degree of focus and a better defined sense of purpose than could be found on subsequent outings like Angst In My Pants and Whomp That Sucker. Furthermore, Moroder's slick dance pop arrangements actually complemented the group's content quite well, eminently conducive to conveying the myriad hooks and impressive melodies that the band conjured.

    Thus In Outer Space is another dance pop/synth pop affair, but the melodies are far superior to the lackluster fare often encountered on the previous two albums. While the rhythmic beats that constitute the foundations of their respective tracks are still somewhat rudimentary the band is once again able to craft stellar vocal melodies for Russell Mael to apply his vocal gymnastics to. The melodies are universally catchy and memorable, with no filler to speak of being found on the album.

    Highlights abound, from the group's solitary hit single in America, the collaboration with the Go-Go's Jane Wiedlin Cool Places to the irresistible Popularity to the hyper catchy, hilarious I Wish I Looked A Little Better to the unforgettable All You Ever Think About Is Sex. The album provides the band's best set of melodies since No. 1 In Heaven, while thankfully containing more (and shorter) tracks than that seminal outing.

    The band are as self-aware as ever, as evidenced on tracks like the self-deprecating mockery of dance pop Dance Godammit featuring the world's most enervated, robotic, undanceable melody imaginable to Please, Baby, Please, a track that almost sounds sincere in its clichés and banalities (and in the hands of any other band doubtless would have been). The album's lyrics are by and large inferior to the usual caliber of their coruscations of wit, but they're still immensely entertaining, albeit a tad less creative than usual.

    Ultimately In Outer Space is an impressive return to form after the disappointing duo of Whomp That Sucker and Angst In My Pants. Needless to say it remains a far cry from the brilliance of their classic period, but for a late period album it's surprisingly strong, with a full rebound with regards to the quality of the songwriting. The caliber of the vocal melodies has made a full resurgence, leading to a highly enjoyable outing from the band. The Moroder-esque production is at least somewhat restrained and subdued compared to the excesses of some of the Mael brothers' prior albums, coating the tracks with a glossy sheen without marring or obstructing the melodies.

    Thus In Outer Space can be recommended to any fan of the group for whom slick production isn't completely anathema and who isn't anticipating genius on the level of Kimono My House. While the album hardly breaks any new ground the band is most certainly to be commended for a work of this quality and consistency.

    Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat (1984)
    Page Rating: 4
    Overall Rating: 8

    It's certainly not surprising that Sparks' first actively bad album arrived right in the heart of the eighties; the decade had proven to be the artistic downfall for myriad prominent groups and rock artists, and unfortunately the Mael brothers weren't an exception to this rule, proving equally susceptible to the alluring excesses of the epoch. While Sparks were able to combat the effects of the era for some time, producing albums that, while mired in the sonic defects of the times, continued to likewise have a plethora of positive attributes as well, they inevitably succumbed to the spell of the eighties, breeding products that ranged from mediocre to abysmal.

    Noxious eighties production values can be overlooked if they're obstructing something of substance, and such was the case of Sparks' early eighties offerings, wherein tight songwriting was married to the decade's trademark glossy, overproduced sheen; unfortunately, on Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat there are no longer any signs of the Mael brothers' artistic genius, resulting in typical eighties drivel with no clever hooks or entertaining melodies to redeem it.

    The majority of the tracks simply contain monotonous beats; while such beats were present on albums like In Outer Space, they were always relegated to the background, functioning as a foundation for the group's signature catchy vocal melodies to be superimposed over. On Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat, however, memorable vocal melodies tend to be conspicuously absent, resulting in tracks with little more to offer than an incessant repetitive backbeat.

    The album isn't bereft of merit, as numbers like the title track, Pretending To Be Drunk and Sisters are marginally superior to their LP based brethren. Even the oft disparaged Sparks In The Dark instrumentals are somewhat interesting at first, until the revelation that the tracks go absolutely nowhere despite their combined length. But there are no true classics present, resulting in the dispiriting equation of 'lesser of the two evils' when assessing the songs on the record.

    None of the tracks are offensive per se, merely tedious and resoundingly unexceptional. There's little to elicit overt hatred, as the record simply cultivates an overall feeling of distaste for the album and its contents in the listener. The LP is never painful or difficult to stomach, but it's also rarely enjoyable, with the contents sufficiently bland and generic that they fail to even be poor in an interesting or compelling way.

    The creative catastrophe of this album didn't come from nowhere; Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat is much like its synth pop partner In Outer Space would have been without its parade of catchy vocal melodies. As long as their creative faculties remained intact Sparks were capable of finding a suitable balance between their strong songwriting and their eighties influences. Once they were unable to compose catchy tracks, however, their products were condemned to mediocrity or worse, as is depicted on this album.

    Thus Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat is indeed the band's first bad album, and it's difficult to recommend to anyone save diehard Sparks completists. While not awful the record has very little to offer, capturing the group in the midst of their unfortunate downward spiral.

    Music That You Can Dance To (1986)
    Page Rating: 2
    Overall Rating: 6

    Music That You Can Dance To picks up right where Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat left off, with the band being transfigured into a generic, derivative and pedestrian dance pop/synth pop outfit.

    Unfortunately, Music That You Can Dance To fails to even rise to the standards of its mediocre predecessor, with the quality of the album being exacerbated by yet further deterioration in the songwriting department. Catchy vocal melodies are a rarity on the record, as are creative or compelling arrangements, resulting in an LP that primarily consists of repetitive, grating beats and bland singing, with little to offer in the way of musical substance.

    It's difficult to identify highlights in the midst of this sea of aural effluvia; tracks like the Citizen Kane allusion Rosebud are somewhat preferable to songs like the headache inducing sonic ugliness of Let's Get Funky with its interminable repetition or many of the numbers sporting obnoxious spoken vocal passages (a tendency that manifests itself throughout the album, culminating in its particularly irritating presence on Change), but that's a case of damning with faint praise, as no track on the album even comes close to approaching the level of a Sparks classic.

    It's painful to witness a band of the caliber and creativity of Sparks be reduced to the role of purveyors of generic, abysmal dance pop; the album is utterly bereft of the group's usual wit and personality, and the Mael brothers' once effortless capacity to generate armadas of catchy tunes has certainly greatly deteriorated, if not wholly atrophied.

    Overall the album has very little to offer the listener save a decent beat to dance to should you be of that inclination. The melodies are tepid, the lyrics lack the clever incisiveness of the band's glory days and the performances are bland and repetitive. Russell Mael's singing never amounts to much as he's never given any quality melodies to apply his vocal gymnastics to, while the arrangements are uniformly sterile monotonous.

    Ergo Music That You Can Dance To is another Sparks outing that can only be recommended to the Mael brothers' most diehard fans with an obsessive need to own all of the band's output. Listening to the album is a chthonic experience that could only be enjoyed by the most masochistic of audiences, as the band had plummeted from the pinnacle of pop to the lowest depths of the genre.

    Interior Design (1988)
    Page Rating: 3
    Overall Rating: 7

    While perhaps marginally better than its atrocious predecessor, Interior Design is by no means a return to form. The album shares nearly every flaw that afflicted Music That You Can Dance To, from its horrific blandness to its repetitive nature.

    Barring the unmistakable sound of Russell Mael's voice and the tone of some of the lyrics (though these lyrics are far more generic than ever before, largely bereft of the wit that the group customarily infused into their songs) there's nothing to betray the fact that this is a Sparks album. Nearly any faceless eighties band could doubtless duplicate the style and quality of the album, as Interior Design lacks nearly every trait that made the group special in the first place.

    There are isolated moments of merit, like the way the title's sung on Just Got Back From Heaven, but even this vocal hook is diluted by the lackluster quality of the song it inhabits.

    The album is filled with pronounced misfires, like the attempt at sly wit in the fabricated anecdote Madonna that simply falls flat on its face, with no strong melody to compensate for the deficiencies of the lyrics; on the contrary, the music is the song's weakest facet, alternating between grating spoken vocals and a bland, chronically repeating refrain with no hooks to speak of.

    The band had simply lost themselves; having lost sight of their identity, they were condemned to mimic the styles of lesser groups who lacked even a fraction of Sparks' talents. Convincing themselves that material of this nature is what their audience wanted, the group sacrificed their individuality and succumbed to the temptation of musical conformity, thus being transfigured into a generic, derivative dance pop outfit with little in the way of drive or purpose.

    Thus Interior Design continued the streak of dismal outings from the band, with no sign of relief in sight; with each successive album the band became further removed from their own strengths, seemingly not even perceiving the creative rut they'd fallen into.

    Ultimately Interior Design is a work of little worth or merit, merely an instrument of frustration for Sparks fans who justifiably scoff at the band's recent output. With each subsequent outing of this low caliber the group's fans are given less and less reason to hope for a creative resurgence, and Interior Design certainly gives little evidence that this parade of misfires will ever come to an end.

    Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins (1994)
    Page Rating: 7
    Overall Rating: 11

    After the debacle that was Interior Design Sparks opted to take a six year sabbatical, and this hiatus proved to be precisely what was needed to rejuvenate the stagnating band. Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins was a masterful return to form, depicting a reinvigorated band that, while far from their peak, certainly still had much to offer the musical community.

    It's not that the album was a radical departure from the band's recent outings; on the contrary, the material remained based upon the same techno drenched dance beats that had afflicted their recent work. The difference, however, is that unlike their output on albums like Interior Design and Music That You Can Dance To, the tracks from Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins merely employ these rhythms as a backdrop to superimpose catchy vocal melodies upon, returning to the classic interplay between Russell Mael's singing and Ron Mael's keyboards.

    The irresistibly catchy vocal melodies aren't all that's back; the lyrics have also reverted to their prior glory, making for a far more idiosyncratic experience. Even lesser tracks, like Tsui Hark, wherein the prominent Hong Kong action filmmaker recites his accomplishments over a minimalist backing, are imbued with a sufficient amount of eccentric charm to make them worthwhile experiences.

    Highlights abound on the album, from the gorgeous When Do I Get To Sing "My Way" to the hyper catchy (When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing to the hilariously bombastic I Thought I Told You To Wait In The Car. These songs are universally offbeat and well written, boasting a plethora of hooks and the enchantment of the band's unique personality.

    As if proclaiming the album a conscious return to form the record even opens with an intentional homage to Propaganda, as Gratuitous Sax is an a cappella number that clocks in at under a minute. While admittedly the album is a far cry from that classic masterwork it's at least refreshing that the band is attempting to recapture the magic of their glory days as opposed to pathetically latching onto contemporaneous trends.

    This isn't to say that the album doesn't betray any notable influences. Comparisons between Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins and Pet Shop Boys have often been made, with accusations that the band's been aping that particular techno pop outfit. While some of the music is definitely reminiscent of the Pet Shop Boys' style, the album's strength lies in its creative vocal melodies as opposed to its rhythmic beats, and this is an area where the Pet Shop Boys provide no competition for Sparks.

    The danger when assessing the overall quality of the album lies in the temptation to simply compare it with the band's most recent content. When evaluated from that perspective it's easy to overrate the album, as it's such a pleasant surprise after a trio of absolute misfires.

    When viewed independently of this context it remains quite a strong outing, but it still can't compare to classics like Kimono My House and Big Beat, or even late period successes like In Outer Space. Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins is indeed a very good album, but one should resist the natural temptation to inflate its grade as a result of its placement in the band's discography. It's still a must buy for all Sparks fans, and a high quality LP in its own right, but there remained no chance that the album could attain the dizzying heights of Sparks' best work.

    Plagiarism (1997)
    Page Rating: 6
    Overall Rating: 10

    In the late nineties there was an emerging trend sweeping the music scene, a gimmick that became increasingly prevalent with each passing year. A plethora of rock groups would devote entire albums to remixes of other bands' work, appropriating their oeuvre for a parade of modified covers. This basically amounted to the 'plagiarism' that Sparks' album title alludes to, the recycling of another band's work under the flimsy pretext of making something 'new' out of older material.

    Perhaps Sparks were bitter that they were excluded from this phenomenon or simply wanted to indoctrinate a new generation of fans through modernizations of their classic staples. Maybe they were concerned that should they receive this 'tribute' treatment their brilliant output would be butchered and bastardized beyond recognition. Whatever the reason, Sparks chose to subject themselves to a project of this nature, providing an array of remixes of their own work before it could be co-opted by someone else.

    I tend to disdain remix-enterprises of this nature, and this attitude isn't dispelled or even diluted by the fact that it's the group themselves doing the remixing. The Mael brothers are two of the most clever individuals in the history of rock, so they certainly showcase some good ideas over the course of the album, but the fact of the matter is that Plagiarism never transcends the unenviable status of a novelty project. Intriguing as some of the remixes may be, they're uniformly inferior to the original renditions, making for an engaging first listen that will likely be one's last listen as well. There's no incentive to return to an album comprised of lesser versions of great songs, so once one's initial curiosity has been sated I can't fathom why anyone would want to hear Plagiarism again.

    I said 'lesser versions of great songs,' but this is something of a misnomer as many of the tracks don't exactly constitute peak Mael brothers material. The song selection is rather flawed, as many of the band's best albums are severely underrepresented and some of the choices for inclusion are questionable at best. Furthermore, two tracks are repeated, basically rendering them doubly redundant songs on an already completely redundant album.

    The caliber of the performances is somewhat erratic. Much of Plagiarism feels more like a creative exercise than a true album, as the Mael brothers twist and tweak their ware as if they were guided by passing whims as opposed to a commitment to artistic worth or quality. The degree to which the songs are altered varies dramatically, and while most of the final products are passable there are indeed some absolute misfires as well. One will invariably wonder how Sparks could suffer from the misguided notion that turning Funny Face into a ballad was a good idea, or how they could possibly imagine that collaborating with Faith No More could enhance their work.

    One track that many cite as a standout is Propaganda, which has been greatly extended since its appearance on the album of the same name. The truth, however, is that I feel that the original version's brevity was a large part of its charm, and believe that the track works better as an intro to At Home At Work At Play than as an individual composition.

    The album is still fundamentally entertaining, as it features myriad songs that are simply incredible regardless of how they've been reshaped or altered. This doesn't change the fact, however, that these songs are enjoyable in spite of the concept of the album rather than because of it, inadvertent merit that arises from past brilliance as opposed to any recent work of consequence. This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us is one of the greatest songs of all time, and will remain so even when string arrangements replace electric guitars or Faith No More incongruously snarl out the lyrics.

    Thus Plagiarism is wholly superfluous, even for diehard Sparks fans. While it's interesting to listen to the Mael brothers take liberties with their classic material, that's a decidedly ephemeral fascination that may merit a single listen but ultimately leaves the listener with a completely useless disc in his collection.

    Balls (2000)
    Page Rating: 6
    Overall Rating: 10

    While there's a noticeable drop in quality between Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins and Balls, the latter is certainly still a vast improvement over the effluvia that constituted the band's late eighties output. There are still a number of catchy vocal melodies on the album, and the arrangements are still infinitely preferable to the eighties drenched instrumentation on albums like Music That You Can Dance To, not to mention the fact that the record boasts far superior lyrics when compared with their material from that era.

    There are definitely some strong tracks on Balls, from the rocking opener that is the title track to the surprisingly serious sounding, catchy and moody It's A Knockoff. Unfortunately the band is unable to sustain this level of quality throughout the entire album, resulting in some filler to at least momentarily dispel one's erstwhile good will toward the record.

    The worst culprits tend to be the slower tracks, which invariably turn out bland and hookless, from the nondescript (save the incongruous profanity in the refrain) closer The Angels to How To Get Your Ass Kicked (though that particular number is somewhat salvaged by its amusing lyrics).

    Nothing on the album is actively bad, but the proportionate increase in filler since Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins remains disconcerting. Given the six year gap between Balls and its predecessor one would think the Mael brothers were granted adequate time to craft and refine enough strong tracks to fill a fifty minute album, but sadly this is not the case.

    Stylistically Balls is indistinguishable from the band's previous work in the techno/dance pop vein, failing to break any new ground; truth be told, it had been over a decade since the band had ventured into new territory, preferring to excel in established genres rather than making any new innovations themselves. This isn't a problem on records like Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins wherein the band is able to conjure enough compelling vocal melodies, but it can be severely detrimental toward lesser works like Interior Design. Balls straddles the fence in this department, as it's sufficiently strong that the paucity of originality can be overlooked for the most part yet not quite up to the level of its predecessor wherein this defect failed to constitute a problem of any sort.

    Ultimately Balls is a solid outing, a pretty good if unremarkable LP. It doesn't depict the band in top form, but it contains enough hooks and clever lyrics to make it worthy of the Sparks' name. It's certainly unsettling that this once pioneering pop outfit had adhered to the same style for decades, and all the more so given the unevenness of their output in this genre, but on this occasion it worked out for the band, resulting in yet another solid entry into this techno/dance pop series.

    Lil' Beethoven (2002)
    Page Rating: 9
    Overall Rating: 13

    After a prolonged flirtation with a fusion of techno, synth pop and dance pop that spanned decades it appeared as if Sparks were condemned to a course that led them inexorably closer to stagnation, a stagnation that it appeared was impossible to avert at this point in the group's development.

    Fortunately this was not the case, as on Lil' Beethoven the Mael brothers revert to the roles of the musical pioneers that they had so successfully assumed long ago, transfigured into their erstwhile forms of artistic revolutionaries as opposed to the commercially minded, pandering trend hoppers they had degenerated into over the course of their previous albums.

    Lil' Beethoven is a truly revolutionary product, an album like nothing else in the medium of pop and rock music. The album's formula revolves around an aural backdrop of elaborately orchestrated classical music to which repetitive vocals are set, bereft of drums and electric guitars (save one notable instance of rock regression).

    As I'd asserted, the vocals are indeed highly repetitive, but this hardly constitutes a problem as their tendency toward redundancy is quite intentional; Russell Mael's vocals are used, given the absence of percussion and electric guitars, to convey the song structures and melodies, cultivating infectious grooves with his endless repetitions.

    One would assume that an extended adherence to this musical template would grow tedious and wearying, but this is never the case; even while employing this unique modality the band are able to craft vastly different moods and tones with this approach, hence tracks like the gorgeous I Married Myself, the hilarious of Suburban Homeboy and the jokingly menacing opener The Rhythm Thief.

    The band's idiosyncratic style on Lil' Beethoven works far better than one could imagine, as the swirling orchestral arrangements in the background brilliantly complement Russell Mael's irresistible vocals, resulting in a startlingly original and impressive product.

    Sparks don't exclusively employ this formula, however, as there's a single notable departure from the band's classical approach. Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls rocks harder than nearly anything else in the band's catalogue, introducing the electric guitars and drums that were so conspicuously absent from the rest of the album. It feels a bit incongruous given its defilement of the record's potential conceptual album status, and it certainly doesn't rank amongst the best the LP has to offer, but it's still a welcome diversion that dispels the potentially exasperating uniformity of the album.

    While there are no actively bad songs on the album, there is the occasional comparatively weaker number, as, for example, the monotony of You're Call's Very Important To Us. Please Hold. can't help but grow grating due to its incessant repetition that makes the other tracks seem vocally diverse in comparison, but repeated listens unveil the charm of even this more suspect song.

    Ultimately Lil' Beethoven is one of those rare sonic experiments that truly works on nearly every level, simultaneously differentiating itself from everything else in the music scene while still possessing ample musical substance to satisfy any pop lover. While it may sound like a pretentious, avant-garde stunt, it's far from experimentation for the sake of experimentation or a pathetic attempt at generating widespread attention, as it truly works marvelously on a more accessible, direct level as well, genuinely enhancing one's listening experience. It's truly amazing that a band as far into its lifespan as Sparks was able to redefine the musical medium at this stage of their careers, a second revolution from one of the most influential groups in the realm of pop, but the Mael brothers proved that they still have much to offer the world of music from a creative standpoint. Impressive as both a technical marvel and a source of casual entertainment Lil' Beethoven renews one's faith in the band, reminding the listener of why they fell in love with the group in the first place.

    Hello Young Lovers (2006)
    Page Rating: 8
    Overall Rating: 12

    While Hello Young Lovers is certainly reminiscent of its seminal, groundbreaking predecessor, it's far from a remake, which is quite fortunate as Lil' Beethoven is a one of a kind album that would be diluted and cheapened by any rehashes. Hello Young Lovers can stand on its own as another very strong outing for the group, achieving a balance between the classical arrangements of Lil' Beethoven and the more conventional rock and pop of Sparks' earlier albums.

    While piano and string arrangements remain prominent facets of the album's sound, the Mael brothers aren't afraid to add elements like distorted electric guitars into the mix. Aside from Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls the band had abstained from more straightforward rocking on Lil' Beethoven, thus making the electric arrangements on Hello Young Lovers a key factor in differentiating itself from its immediate predecessor while still retaining myriad components of the album's sound.

    Most importantly, Hello Young Lovers offers another selection of strong tracks from the band, from the whimsical opener Dick Around with its irresistible rapped verses and unexpected metamorphosis into a hard rocker to the more subdued yet catchy Perfume to the sly political commentary of (Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country to the infectious hilarity of Metaphor. While there's a noticeable qualitative decline toward the end of the album there's still hardly anything bad or offensive, simply a slightly erratic tendency when compared to the consistency of Lil' Beethoven.

    The lyrics are the band's usual blend of the intelligent and the absurd, from establishing the pivotal role in courtship that metaphors should play (as Russell Mael insists that 'chicks dig metaphors') to the escalating dilemmas of a fireman whom, after rescuing a treed cat, is called upon to save a tiger in a similar predicament. The lyrics are universally clever and amusing, as one can customarily expect from all but a few Sparks albums.

    Hello Young Lovers proves that the band's masterful comeback with Lil' Beethoven wasn't a fluke. While it's not up to the same level as its predecessor, I would prefer a slightly weaker yet stylistically different album to an equal that simply milks the formula of the album that preceded it. Hello Young Lovers undeniably owes an enormous amount to Lil' Beethoven, yet it still cultivates its own identity, be it through hard rock passages or comparatively conventional song structures.

    In all Hello Young Lovers is a great follow up to Lil' Beethoven, as the renaissance of Sparks continues unabated. The Mael brothers' songwriting remains strong, while their arrangements are as skillful and imaginative as ever. While consistently relying on classical motifs could endanger the newfound freshness of the previously stagnating group should it continue unchecked in the long term, for now the group has a marvelous facility for integrating orchestral arrangements into their songs without sacrificing any of their pop catchiness, and for the moment it doesn't seem to pose a threat to the band's creativity.

    Thus Hello Young Lovers can be recommended whole heartedly to any fan of Sparks, particularly those with a pronounced fondness for Lil' Beethoven. The group's late term resurgence is nearly unprecedented in the world of rock and pop, and should be considered a special gift to long term fans of the group.

    Exotic Creatures Of The Deep (2008)
    Page Rating: 10
    Overall Rating: 14

    While one is often quick to attribute the predicament of a once stellar group languishing in a nebulous limbo of mediocrity to some kind of atrophy of talent, sometimes the true cause of this qualitative rut can be something as simple as needing some kind of creative spark (no pun intended). While years of sub par efforts would tend to suggest some irrevocable loss of ability, a group's talents may merely be bubbling beneath the surface, waiting for some kind of inspiration to draw them out, a catalyst to reinvigorate a stagnating performer's artistry.

    Such was the case on the brilliant Lil' Beethoven, wherein Sparks experienced a creative revitalization by juxtaposing backdrops of intricately orchestrated pseudo-classical music with infectious vocal grooves. The group managed to sustain this newfound momentum on their follow-up record, Hello Young Lovers, but that's not to say that that album was a complete rehash or carbon copy of its predecessor; rather, it bridged the gap between the group's classical and pop rock sides, a trend continued on Exotic Creatures Of The Deep wherein Sparks find the perfect balance between their old and new styles.

    On Hello Young Lovers Sparks attempted to merge their rock and classical modalities by bringing in more conventional rock and roll arrangements to complement their lavishly orchestrated soundscapes, but Exotic Creatures Of The Deep takes this further by more organically fusing the two sides as opposed to simply superimposing them over one another.

    The most important disparity between the two albums, and the factor that elevates Exotic Creatures Of The Deep to the pinnacle of the mock-classical trilogy, is the simple matter of Russell Mael's vocals. While his vocals were a chief asset on the previous two albums, they tended to be spoken as opposed to sung; this created tight, gratifying grooves on tracks like Rhythm Thief but it also prevented the group from conjuring the brand of hyper-catchy, unforgettable vocal melodies that used to be the band's greatest strength.

    On Exotic Creatures Of The Deep these vocal melodies come back in full force, thus achieving the previously alluded to ideal balance between Sparks' classic and classical styles. Better still, the years of vocal-melody-abstinence have given the group time to recharge their creative faculties, as the hooks on the album are amongst the best the band's concocted in quite some time, rendering the CD a late period masterpiece that's on par with Sparks' best work.

    Exotic Creatures Of The Deep is wholly devoid of filler, simply a parade of classic vocal melody after classic vocal melody. The album opens with the soothing sonic textures of Intro, a theme that's repeated several times throughout the CD. Intro segues directly into the stellar single Good Morning, a track characterized by its catchy melody, irresistible vocal hooks and hilarious lyrics. This track alone recalls a side of the band not seen in years, combining Sparks' flair for infectious pop rock along with their ever-present lyrical wit and sophistication, two elements that recur with every song on the album. In the case of Good Morning bouncy electronic beats are adroitly employed to complement the tale of a man awakening next to a woman with no inkling of how the situation came about, a standard anecdote rescued from genericism thanks to the Mael brothers' usual clever lyrics.

    Next comes Strange Animal, which starts as another pop rocker but ultimately transforms into an incredibly catchy hard rock tune with a memorable refrain and more of the Mael brothers' brand of biting wit. Strange Animal is followed by the scathing lyrics and terrific vocal hooks of I Can't Believe That You Would Fall For All The Crap In This Song, leading into the wonderful pop/classical fusion Let The Monkey Drive which, predictably enough, boasts another unforgettable vocal melody.

    Arriving next is I've Never Been High which, despite its subject matter, actually manages to be quite beautiful, with its elegant strings and piano arrangements and gorgeous vocal performance in the refrain. Following that unlikely anthem of pining for lost opportunities to experiment with narcotics is the frantic (She Got Me) Pregnant with its nearly operatic vocals and the superb Lighten Up, Morrissey, wherein Russell Mael bemoans his would-be girlfriend's infatuation with the Smiths' frontman which prevents her from dating him.

    This Is The Renaissance sports more terrific vocal melodies (though on this album that pretty much goes without saying) and The Director Never Yelled 'Cut,' in addition to its expected merits, deftly integrates samples from Intro into its middle section to make for a more aurally adventurous track. Photoshop almost comes off like an attempt to prove that the Mael brothers are with-it enough to namedrop modern technology ala Alice Cooper referencing the X-Box on the album Eyes Of Alice Cooper and Ian Anderson alluding to the internet on Dot Com, but despite this the song is as catchy and clever as one would expect from a Sparks song.

    The closer, Likeable, is another strong number, as charming as the title would suggest, and the way it transitions into Intro at the end almost recalls the segue from We're Not Gonna Take It to See Me, Feel Me at the end of Tommy. While Sparks' equivalent, needless to say, isn't the moment of ethereal beauty and catharsis that the Who had fashioned, it's still adeptly handled by the band and makes for the perfect ending to the album.

    Thus Exotic Creatures Of The Deep is a true classic that represents the zenith of Sparks' efforts in this style. The band have truly mastered this melding of classical music and pop rock, and are thus finally able to apply all of their chief strengths into their new style without sacrificing anything from either their past or present. With their sophisticated yet immediately gratifying vocal melodies the Mael brothers sound more like classic period Sparks than they have in quite some time, having remembered what made them such a great band in the first place while still adding new elements to keep the formula fresh. The album is a must own for any Sparks fan, and concrete evidence that the band can be just as exciting and relevant as ever in the over-saturated arena of modern rock.

    The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman (2009)
    Page Rating: 9
    Overall Rating: 13

    It's surprising that a group as artistically ambitious and intellectually adventurous as Sparks never before tried their hand at a concept album, a longtime staple of any band with deeper pretensions. One could argue that Lil' Beethoven is a concept album, but despite that LP's stylistic uniformity it lacks much in the way of overarching thematics or anything that could be called a coherent narrative.

    With The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman, the Mael brothers finally correct this oversight. Furthermore, what they deliver is not merely a superficially cohesive album, nor a standard LP with a supposed 'concept' hastily tacked on. Rather, Sparks plunge head-on into the world of concept albums by tackling the ultimate form of the genre, the rock opera.

    Needless to say, the Mael brothers take a decidedly erudite and esoteric approach to the rock opera, complete with their trademark wit and sophistication. The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman finds the legendary filmmaker spirited away to Hollywood by movie studio execs who would corrupt the purity of the Swede's artistic vision for their own commercial gain. This idiosyncratic premise facilitates everything from Hollywood satire to complex meditations on human nature to questions of what constitutes artistic purity.

    Such lofty goals will, more often than not, sabotage a product with their pretentious bombast and sanctimonious preachiness, but in the case of The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman the Mael brothers adroitly evade these artistic hazards by never taking themselves too seriously. This isn't to say that Sparks don't make meaningful points; rather, the brothers filter these insights and commentaries through their customary coruscations of wit and lyrical dexterity. This penchant for humor never undermines or dilutes the gravity of the subject matter. If anything, it makes the band's points all the more effective by avoiding common pitfalls like pompousness and heavy-handedness.

    Lyrically Ron and Russ are in top form throughout the album, but they don't always fare as well in the musical department. There are, as one has come to expect from Sparks, flashes of melodic brilliance. The Studio Commissary is far more than an excuse for witty allusions to the cast of a Hollywood of yore, as it blends Gilbert and Sullivan-esque overtones with a customarily brilliant Sparks vocal melody. Limo Driver (Welcome To Hollywood) isn't mere exposition, but rather a catchy and amusing track that advances the plot without overshadowing its music. Mr. Bergman, How Are You? is a skillful marriage of clever parody and snide cynicism delivered through an array of incredible vocal hooks.

    To be honest, every real song features a terrific melody, meaning that whenever the Mael brothers apply themselves to songwriting they're met with overwhelming success. It's the tracks that aren't really songs that pose a musical problem, however. By virtue of its status as a rock opera, The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman is often forced to further its story at the expense of hooks or melodies. Thus throughout the album one will encounter segues and interstitial segments that lack much in the way of musical substance.

    It's a testament to the Mael brothers that even some of the transitional tracks boast memorable hooks. I've Got To Contact Sweden, despite its repetitiveness and rudimentary nature, is enormously catchy, and the same can be said for segues like Here He Is Now and Pleasant Hotel Staff.

    Nevertheless, it's clear that, more often than not, the Mael brothers focus on plot and dialogue while neglecting music. This is natural for a rock opera, but it remains somewhat jarring that two of the foremost masters of the hook would ever make melody a lesser priority.

    The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman still has all the ingredients that compose a great rock opera. The lyrics are witty and sophisticated, and there are a number of truly stunning melodies. The unfortunate thing is that the album could have been even better. Had the Mael brothers devoted the kind of meticulous pop craftsmanship that animates tracks like Escape and He's Home to every track on the album then the final product would have been truly amazing. As it stands, The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman is 'merely' an excellent album, marred only by the standards that Sparks have set for themselves.