Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman (2009)

Sparks are popular in Sweden, it seems. Like duck comics. Those Scandinavians really have their heads on straight. So as a result of this popularity, the band was commissioned by Swedish National Radio to create a radio musical. A first-ever for R'n'R! Or for just about *anyone* in this day and age. It had to be somehow Sweden-related. So, they hit on Ingmar Bergman.

The story: Ingmar goes on a whim to see a bad American action film and finds himself in Hollywood upon leaving the theater. What follows is a surreal, Kafkaesque nightmare as a Hollywood studio tries to convince him to work for THEM! Then, at the end, he's saved by Greta Garbo, who gets him back to Sweden. True story.

Now look, this is obviously a departure for the band--first musical, first album with a narrative, first one to incorporate a multitude of voices--so obviously, it's going to take some getting used to for the average fan (well, for me). The reason this feature went up so late is that I felt it was incumbent on me to listen to it enough to have a somewhat thought-out opinion.

And the opinion I've come to: this is pretty darned cool. Honestly, the general concept doesn't exactly blow me away; it does the job, and it makes sense for a somewhat marginalized band like Sparks to take on this art-vs-commerce theme, but the idea doesn't set me on fire--I feel like it's just adequate. The execution is where it shines, however, and isn't that what it's all about? Somewhat irritatingly, the entire thing is presented as one bigass track, even though it's broken into segments in the booklet. Sure, it's designed to be listened to as a whole rather than in pieces, but it just feels a bit clunky, and I feel like it makes it somewhat more difficult to analyze. It's not too much of an issue, however.

The songs aren't uniformly great, but there's plenty worth hearing here. The one that most people (including me--I'm SUCH a sheep) will immediately identify as the album's highlight is "The Studio Commissary," probably because it sounds most traditionally Sparksish. Russell, as the studio chief, takes Bergman to the commissary and, like Satan showing Jesus the kingdoms of the world, points out all the famous expatriate directors eating there, all to the tune form of a frantic, vaguely sinister polka.

Also notable: Ron sings! A Sparks first! And he does so credibly well, as "limo driver" and particularly as "Hollywood tour guide" (the funniest part of the album). The latter segues into the tense "Autograph Hounds," with its sense of claustrophobia and impending doom. The final escape sequence is also suitably climactic. Overall, I would say that the level of tension rises in quite an efficient/effective way, though honestly, the Garbo sequence at the end doesn't do much for me.

Still, why complain? It's fascinating, adventurous new terrain, and it's extremely heartening to see that the Maels aren't getting complacent in their late middle age. I eagerly await whatever comes next.

Exotic Creatures of the Deep (2008)

Here's Exotic Creatures of the Deep. Musically, it's pretty much a direct follow-up to Hello Young Lovers. Some of the song titles sound a bit…strained in their attempted wackiness ("I Can't Believe that You Would Fall for All the Crap in This Song," "Lighten Up, Morrissey," "Photoshop Me Out of Your Life"), leading one to expect the worst, but one would be happily incorrect. It's a bit less awesome, but it's still pretty awesome. For instance, "Let the Monkey Drive," with its naggingly insistent piano accompaniment, is extremely awesome. The allmusic review claims it's an attack on our former president, but this seems like a massive stretch to me. Just because it has a monkey in it isn't really proof of anything, dood.

"I've Never Been High" recalls "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way?'" In a good way. The post-one-night-stand single "Good Morning" is pretty classy with some great lyrics. ". . . I fix you breakfast/I hope it's just your laugh that is infectious," and poses the question: "Does das vedonya really mean good morning?" (sadly, no). I also have to point out the song "Brenda Is Always in the Way," which is only on the Japanese edition, which sucks, because it's totally great and you need to hear it. "As constructive criticism, Brenda, may I say, although you're A-okay, you're always in the way." Look on the internet! That's what I did.

Okay, there are a few songs that do, indeed, sound a bit strained in their wackiness. "(She Got Me) Pregnant" is nice enough, with some decent lyrics ("You know how these girls can be/They treat you all so casually/They wine you and they dine you and expect a little la-dee-dee"), but as noted: strained. A bit. Same with "Lighten Up, Morrissey," where the girlfriend is unhappy with Russell's non-Morissey-like ways (although one can't but appreciate "she won't disport with me"--that's just a great and underused word for a pop song). This is a good record to listen to, however. It is, for the most part, very…good.

Hello Young Lovers (2006)

"HOLY FUCKING SHIT," is about all you can say here--the notion that a band this venerable could experience such a monumental return to form seems laughable; a self-serving fantasy--but the proof is in the FUCKING AWESOME pudding, as they say. Do they say that? They should. There is one song here that is less than sensational, and "The Very Next Fight" is still good, and quite interesting lyrically; it's just…a shade weaker than everything else. Everything else is goddamn GREAT, starting with the opening single "Dick Around;" everyone who hears it for the first time EVER will compare it to "Bohemian Rhapsody;" fair enough, but the resemblance, when you get down to it, is mostly superficial--a song with a bunch of different parts. Dude. How the HELL does a band that's been around so long sound so totally self-assured? Chronicling the aftermath of a breakup with a torrential outpouring of words and music, in the most offbeat, awesome way possible. You gotta hear it.

That's the most immediately memorable track, but the whole thing is awesome. I love the hell out of the call-and-response on "Metaphor" ("Are you chicks up for a metaphor?" "Yes, we're up for a metaphor!" "Don't don't don't don't mix them!" "We wouldn't dream of mixing them"--I think Thomas Friedman needs to hear this song). I love the absolute emotional brutality on display in "Waterproof" ("I see you crying/But I'm not buying/Your Meryl Streep mimickry"). I love--obviously--the jaundiced, Sparksified take on patriotism in "(Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country?" I love the way "Rock, Rock, Rock" rocks, rocks, rocks. I love the increasingly panicked crescendo of "There's No Such Thing as Aliens." I love the way the epic closer "As I Sit Down to Play the Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral" reminds me of The Recognitions for absolutely no reason other than the fact that that novel does indeed end in a French cathedral. And since I've listed most of the songs and I realize if I leave a few out it will seem as though I'm doing it for a reason, I should clarify that I also love the hypnotic "Perfume" (from which I learned that there's an actual perfume called "Opium"--that must lead to some wacky sitcom-type mix-ups) and the intoxicatingly strange "Here Kitty."

Basically, the whole album is fucking great. I use the word "fucking" because I am linguistically impoverished, perhaps. But it just seems like it has to be done, in this case. Fucking! Great! End! Of! Fucking! Story! Fucking!

Lil' Beethoven (2002)

Not exactly classical, but it provides a vaguely classical patina to traditional Sparksiana--no traditional pop songs, use of classical rather than rock instruments. You couldn't call it "classical" in any deep sense, but it's definitely different, and sees the Maels really innovating for the first time in a long time. I'm not as taken with it as a lot people are, but it's nice to see them pushing boundaries again.

There's a lot of repetition here, lyrically, and it only sort of works. "My Baby's Taking Me Home" consists of nothing but the title phrase repeated eighteen thousand times (with a brief spoken-word interlude in the middle). It's hard to imagine it being anyone's favorite. "Your Call Is Very Important to Us. Please Hold." works better than you'd think, considering that it mostly consists of "First she said: 'your call is very important to us.' And then she said: 'please hold, please hold.'" "The Rhythm Thief" is so good that you don't even notice that it's somewhat lyrically limited. It's a thrilling song with a great conceit: "I am the Rhythm Thief. Say goodbye to the beat." The chorus of "Oh, no! Where did the groove go?" is pretty darned funny, but keep in mind that "you'll never get it back. You'll never get it back. The Rhythm Thief has got it and you'll never get it back."

Actually, writing this, I'm sort of convincing myself that maybe I like it better than I had realized. "Ride 'em Cowboy" is an undeniable classic, super-melodramatic with these cool, minimalistic couplets about falling from grace ("From 'you're for me'/To 'ça suffit'/From bon vivant/To sycophant/From open door/To merde alors). The "ride em cowboy ride em (get back on again)" refrain is also excellent. This one's a real winner.

Also notable: "Ugly Guys with Beautiful Girls," a mostly-spoken-word thing that doesn't seem like much of a song, but which is pretty great anyway, with the over-the-top intellectual detachment of its lyrics about the title phenomenon. Given that it was written by guys in their fifties, "Suburban Homeboy" is a surprisingly incisive/funny song about privileged white kids trying to act like 50 Cent ("I am a suburban homeboy with a suburban ho right by my side/I am a suburban homeboy and I say 'yo, dawg' to my pool cleaning guy").

Anyway, I recommend this in a general way. Nice to see that they've woken up.

Balls (2000)

Hmm. One step forward, two steps back, I'm afraid. Okay, okay--that "one step forward" is probably just wishful thinking, unfortunately. Musically, this pretty much follows in the footsteps of Gratuitous Sax, but it's nowhere near as good. It's not BAD either; it's just that even the better songs here are more pleasant than memorable. The exception is the great "More than a Sex Machine;" it's not anything all that different, sonically--a pretty standard techno-dance number--but it's damnably well done, and it features one of my favorite couplets in all of pop music, perfectly balanced and quite dirty: "You never sought my sensitive side/All that you said was 'ride, baby, ride.'"

Otherwise, though, eh--I mean, sure, "Bullet Train" is a fine enough fast-paced number, the title track is appropriately bouncy, and "The Calm Before the Storm" seems a little eerie given that it was released just a year before 9/11, but there's just not that much to say about this--it ain't hugely exciting. I give it a lukewarm recommendation at best.

Plagiarism (1997)

So after the success of Gratuitous Sax, they decided to try to cash in on their legacy by releasing an album of rerecordings of old songs. That may be a cynical way to put it, but it was a pretty savvy move--a way to draw in both newbies and long-time fans, potentially.

I have to say, though, I find it mostly pretty underwhelming. First, it must be asked: Why do we possibly need two new versions each of "This Town," "No. 1 Song in Heaven," and "Something for the Girl with Everything?" It disrupts the album's flow--who wants to hear the same song twice, neither version all that revelatorily, on the same album? Hmph.

But that's not really the biggest issue--the biggest issue is that most of the rerecordings just aren't that interesting. I mean, they're still fine songs, obviously, but if you know the originals, there's nothing all that thrilling here. The best, for my money, are a couple of numbers, "Angst in My Pants" and "Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat," that were somewhat marginal the first time and now are--well, much better. It's also strange but somewhat cool that they chose to redo the obscure instrumental "Big Brass Ring." But eh…did we really need a version of "Amateur Hour" with nineties techno trappings? Survey sez…no. The slightly faster version of "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" is okay, but it is not sublime. The original is sublime. And the rest of the album goes more or less along the same lines. They would have done well to include more in the way of deep cuts, but I suppose if the idea was partially to reel in newbies, that might have been counterproductive. Regardless, as it stands, I have a hard time really recommending Plagiarism to anyone but hardcore fans.

French Pineapple (1997)

Here is a bootleg with sundry non-album tracks (the only overlap with Retro-Boy, Retro-Girl is "National Crime Awareness Week"). There was a point at which this would have been indispensable, and that point was before Island released remastered version of Kimono My House, Propaganda, Indiscreet, and Big Beat with the appropriate b-sides tacked on. It's still good for completists, but aside from some of the aforementioned b-sides, there's nothing on here that screams "essential." "Breaking Out of Prison," a soundtrack contribution from 1984, is reasonably fun and bouncy. "The Great Leap Forward" is a decent Chinese-themed instrumental. But nothing too exciting.

I do, however, have to single out one track for special derision, and that track is--goddamnit--"Minnie Mouse." That's right--THEY DID A COMPANION SONG TO FUCKING "MICKEY MOUSE." There are simply no words. "You can say she's just a mouse (just a mouse)/The Taj Mahal is just a house (what a house!)" Sweet death, take me now. At least Mickey is a significant cultural figure, for better or for worse. Minnie? She's NOTHING! Like Daisy Duck, she's a completely peripheral, vaguely defined figure with NO especial significance! Why, Ron, why?

Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins (1994)

After a six year hiatus, the Maels had a bright idea: "hey, what about if, instead of doing more uninspired water-treading, we released our best album since No. 1 in Heaven? It's just crazy enough to work!"

And so it is. So. It. Is.

They aren't exactly innovating here, but that's okay. The nineties technoish sound works quite well for the songs here. It never feels forced, or as if they're playing catch-up. There are a few mediocre songs, notably "Tsui Hark" (featuring the director of that name)--it may be the least sonically interesting thing they've ever done. "Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil" is likewise kind of plodding.

But Christ Jesus, "(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing" will knock your socks off, and then you'll have to waste a lot of time looking for them. It features what can only be called rapping, Mael-style, and then it explodes into the most enormous, swooningly romantic chorus you can possibly imagine. It's a real stunner, and would easily find a place in any list of top-ten Sparks songs I might compose.

Almost as good is "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way?'" a bit of sweeping melancholia from the (semi-autobiographical, no doubt) perspective of a singer wondering when or if he's ever going to find that longed-for critical acceptance. It even references Sid Vicious's infamous cover of the song! Really smart, and really good. These guys were rejuvenated and then some by their time off.

I would also mention "Let's Go Surfing," a magnificently bleak number that takes place in a prison. It surely ranks as one of the darkest songs putatively about surfing that I have ever heard (the other one is Johnny Dowd's "Big Wave," obviously (there's also "Surfer Girl," but I'm pretty sure that wasn't actually MEANT to sound like a dirge)). In fact, while still possessing that distinctive Sparks feel, including a song entitled "I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car," this is a surprisingly dark album. It's also a significant artistic achievement, and I recommend it highly.

Retro-Boy, Retro-Girl, & Other Hits (1992)

Hey, look! It's a bootleg demo collection! And a surprisingly essential one, as it happens! One of the tracks, "Frankly, Scarlett, I Don't Give a Damn," would also appear on their next album (same version, same everything), but otherwise, this is all new territory. Some of the songs seem to be Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins demos, some demos from earlier in the eighties, a pair of tracks recorded with the French band Les Rita Mitsouko, and the totally great "National Crime Awareness Week," which I believe was written for some movie or other and which was later a limited-edition single, but which isn't readily available anywhere but here.

And it's mostly really good stuff. The aforementioned "National Crime Awareness Week" is super-atmospheric and cool, about a guy who commits crimes and feeds on the attention it gets him. "This Angry Young Man Ain't Angry No More" is a nice love song, "Live in Las Vegas" sounds like what I imagine would happen if Ron Mael teamed up with Jim Steinman, and OOH! OOH! OOH! the closing "Can Can," sung by a woman unhelpfully labeled as "Eleanor Roosevelt," is absolutely irresistible.

This is probably the most essential Sparks bootleg out there, even more, I would argue, than the Halfnelson Demos. The internet is your friend for finding obscure records like this one.

Interior Design (1988)

Aaand…we're back to badness. I don't want to waste too much time on this. I'll just note that it DOES show signs of life at the end; "A Walk Down Memory Lane" is not half bad, the instrumental "Big Brass Ring" is decent as far as these things go, and "Madonna" must, by default, qualify as the album's high point--a shaggy dog story about a one-night stand with the title person. Assuming she's heard it, I wonder what she thought of it. It's a nice tune, and It has an amusingly non-climactic ending: "In the morning she fixed me a continental breakfast, and then she said, 'well, goodbye.' And I said, 'can I see you again?' and she said 'no,' and I said, 'well, goodbye.'" STILL, I wouldn't call it an all-time classic. Good in the context of this album, which is damning with practically-inaudible praise, and that's about as far as it goes. And now, I am finished talking about it.

Music that You Can Dance to (1986)

Later rereleased, in a somewhat confusing postmodern joke, as The Best of Sparks. Nobody would really call this the "best" of anything, but it's actually a comparative breath of fresh air--bookended by the band's two worst albums, this one somehow ain't so bad. Which isn't to say it's GREAT: "Shopping Mall of Love" comes down on the wrong side of that fine line between clever and stupid, the totally pointless cover of Stevie Wonder's "Fingertips" is…totally pointless (aside from being notable as one of, by my count, only four covers the band has ever done), and "Let's Get Funky" doesn't even come close to it.

But! "Modesty Blaise" (okay okay, for arcane copyright reasons, "Modesty Plays," but Russell is still obviously singing "Blaise," so why the charade?), the unused theme from a TV show about the comic strip character in question, is a very cool spy-type thing! "The Scene" is quite dramatic! And the minor hit single "Change" is pretty neat--it isn't the most musically interesting thing, but it's a good, wryly pained breakup song with a hopeful undertone and some very good wistfully bemused lyrics. "You know, I've been thinking we'll get back together again someday. Your hair will probably be some weird color then. Maybe we'll just start off again as friends. I wonder when?"

To give it its proper weight, we are giving the best song on the album its own paragraph. "Rosebud" is by FAR the best thing here, and one of the best Sparks songs ever--a soaringly, majestically bleak composition about a man whose wife is dying after a car crash. You don't generally think of Ron as one to write things like this, but here it is. It still has a somewhat Sparksian feel, but it's deadly serious, and the chorus, which goes "What will your mother say? What will your father say? What will the angels say--as they hide in disgrace from your beautiful face?" is just something else. The album would be worthwhile for that track alone, if we weren't all buying music a la carte these days if we're buying it at all.

Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat (1984)

Nadir time, folks. Because I am fair and balanced, I must admit that I think the title track is sort of okay. Same with "Pretending to Be Drunk." And "Sisters" has amusing lyrics that take the standard lite-beer-ad menage à trois fantasy in entertainingly offbeat directions. But these songs are far from hugely distinguished, and the rest of the album is substantially worse--just the most bland, forgettable eighties pop music you can imagine. And I say this as a big fan of eighties pop music. Seriously, seriously dispiriting stuff.

In Outer Space (1983)

Surprisingly not bad, actually! Maybe working with the Go-Gos' Jane Wiedlin was an artistic spur. She duets with Russell on the pleasant if somewhat flimsy "Cool Places," which became a reasonable US hit, and on the rather better, atmospheric "Lucky Me, Lucky You."

It definitely has its low points, notably "All You Ever Think about Is Sex," which SHOULD be a minor classic; the first verse is quite good, but then, for reasons that I can't even begin to fathom, Ron decided to jettison any kind of rhyme scheme. WTF? It ruins the entire thing. "I Wish I Looked a Little Better" and "Please Baby Please" aren't great either.

But you gotta like "Popularity," a kind of winding tune that works, and "Rockin' Girls" is instantly lovable, with the great "You're the only girl I ever met who hates 'Hey Jude'/Well maybe that's the reason that I'm so in love with you." "Praying for a Party" is very snappy. And the closer "Dance Goddammit" works, with minimal lyrics that capture a certain mindset quite well. "I like clubs/I like girls/I like music/And that's it."

Overall, it's second only to Whomp that Sucker as eighties Sparks albums go.

Angst in My Pants (1982)

Memo to Russell: "angst" does not mean "soul-crushing apathy." You might have looked that up before singing this here title track, because…it makes a somewhat marginal song much worse.

Even putting that aside, though, this is the first of a number of really uninspired eighties albums. Nonetheless, there are a few somewhat worthwhile songs. In "Nicotina," we learn that not every cigarette is a dead, dead thing--some have a mind and try to be other things. Nicotina is one such, but alas, in a tragic ritual that must recur quite frequently with these sentient smokes, she get burned to death. It's all very melodramatic. "Sherlock Holmes" is a pretty good, somewhat inexplicable love song. And the ending "Eaten by the Monster of Love" is pretty funny with its refrain of "Don't let it get me! Don't let it get me!"

Most of the rest is pretty bad, though. The wackiness of "I Predict" is incredibly labored, and "Tarzan and Jane?" Christ, I don't know what to say. I do know that some bile must be reserved for--sigh--"Mickey Mouse." It's extremely difficult to know just what the hell was going through Ron's head when he penned this one, which appears to be an entirely straight-faced (and entirely stupid!) tributes to everybody's (for some value of "everybody") favorite rodent. "If a mouse can be special, well so can you." Jesus. This song sounds like it was written for, and very possibly by, four-year-olds (fairness and balance compels me to admit that this video is pretty entertaining nonetheless, however).

Anyway, nothing else can be quite that bad, but this is pretty much an album for dead-enders. Not really recommended.

Whomp that Sucker (1981)

The band actually entered the eighties in fine form. This is just a good album. I like almost all of it, including "The Willys" and "That's not Nastassia," songs that many people, with some justification, find unbelievably irritating. The opening single "Tips for Teens" is pretty irresistible. Opinion seems to be divided here, with some people appreciating it and some people thinking BLARGH TEH LYRICS ARE TEH DUMB I RUN INTO WALLS AND GO DUH DUH DUH. You know why I frame the argument that way? Fairness and balance, that's why. Anyway, I think it's great. A doltish adult tries to provide bizarre "advice" ("Wake up to music and say you're too sick to go to work," "Keep that mystique up and wear a D-cup no matter what," "Don't eat no curry before a very important date") to an uninterested teenager.

Almost as good is the mock-operatic "Funny Face," where the singer is filled with despair because he's so goshdarn beautiful that no one can look past his pulchritude to see the real him. My other favorite is "Suzie Safety," a song about a fifties-film-strip-style safety advocate with some really bizarre imagery. It goes in directions that the thematic inspiration never would have, though: "When she's near to me and there's no one else around/And I can't control myself she says 'Safety first, pal.'" And I like "Don't Shoot Me" because it turns the tables on hunters. Hunters suck.

Your mileage may vary, but I'm not sure why you would imagine that I would care about your milage. The point is, I like this one quite a bit.

Terminal Jive (1980)

Soooo…they did another album with Moroder, but with somewhat less spectacular results. Apparently the dude was rejecting their songs left and right; there may be more songs here than on No. 1 in Heaven, but a lot of it has a decidedly fillerish quality. "When I'm with You" isn't that spectacular anyway (a lot of people would beg to differ (it was inexplicably a number one hit in France) but fuck those guys); is there ANY good reason why we additionally need an instrumental version? Also, there's just no way that "Rock and Roll People in a Disco World" is an interesting song. Sorry. And "Just Because You Love Me?" Eh.

However, there are a few notable tracks on the second half. "Noisy Boys" is pretty good, but what's great is "Young Girls," which has the most hilariously sleazy lyrics ever, as Russell takes on a dirty old man persona in a soaring song that's unapologetically about lusting after pubescent girls. "They live at home. They don't have cars. I have a home. I have a car. They like that." Yup. Crank it up and wait for that call from Child Protective Services, who will then have no choice but to get their groove on with you, because how can you not to a song like this?

This will continue into the best track on the album, "The Greatest Show on Earth." You cannot resist the "steady as it goes 'cause she's the greatest show" refrain, and attempting to do so will result in harsh legal sanctions.

And that's all I have to say about Terminal Jive.

Is There More to Life than Dancing? (1979)

Bonus non-Sparks material! Well, sort of. What happened, you see, was that, after the success of No. 1 in Heaven, the Maels apparently decided they wanted to go beyond disco-pop and do some straight up, unapologetic, disco. So, they wrote and produced this EP/album which is credited to a mysterious singer named "Noel," about whom about the only thing anyone can say is that it's not the same "Noel" who had a hit with 1987's "Silent Morning." Wrong gender, for one thing.

Disco, indeed: only five songs, four of them in two-each medley form, with a lot of long instrumental grooving. You do kinda want stomp to them in a discotheque. It isn't all fantastic, but some of it is, and the only really uninteresting thing is the final track, "I Want a Man," where Noel reiterates over and over that she wants a man, wants a man, wants a man--not a boy, not a boy, not a boy. Not too riveting. The lyrics are mostly better than that, though. The best track, "The Night They Invented Love," features a great, incredibly seductive lyrical conceit, done very well. "Dancing Is Dangerous" trails off a bit at the end but it starts well, and when it segues into the title track (on which, though I wouldn't swear to it, I'm pretty sure it's Russell doing the "is there more to life than dancing; is there more to life?" refrain) it really picks up steam. "Au Revoir," the shortest song, is also a winner, albeit a bit slight.

An extremely worthwhile one-off. Only released on long-out-of-print vinyl, but you can easily find it on one or another of teh internets.

No. 1 in Heaven (1979)

So out of nowhere, they decided to hook up with Giorgio Moroder for an album of electronic disco pop that was ultimately a huge, explicit influence on artists like Depeche Mode. A bold move, and you can't argue with the results. Well, I guess you could quibble with them a little. But come on. No need to be disagreeable for disagreeableness's sake.

There are only six tracks, and as such it sort of straddles the border between EP and LP. Like Bowie's Station to Station. Of these six, I only think three are bona fide classics--which isn't to say that the others aren't pleasant to listen to, but they don't necessarily make you explode out of your seat and burn up the dance floor.

However, "Tryouts for the Human Race" kind of does. The burbling, insistent synthesizer beat is pretty all-encompassing. I'm going to be an elitist jerk and just point you to John Barth's "Night-Sea Journey" if the lyrical theme isn't apparent to you, and I have to say, the feel of the song pretty well matches up with that. It's kinda great!

Then there's the epic "No. 1 Song in Heaven." I somehow thought this was a single, but…evidently not. It probably should've been, though that would have necessitated some serious cutting. So maybe not! I don't know! It turns out the devil DOESN'T have all the best tunes, apparently. It features an excellent slow build, and the "Gabriel plays it, God how he plays it!" refrain is kind of wonderful.

But the best track is the woefully underrated "La Dolce Vita." The melody is irresistible, and I find the image called up by the lyrics, of opportunistic Italian lotharios draped theatrically over furniture in ostentatiously jaded array, quite hilarious. "You're the only bank that's open all night…Now that that's clear, when do we eat?" Also, "Looking real bored is what you pay me for…Looking real bored's as hard as scrubbing floors." I love it. Also features the line "Life isn't much but there's nothing else to do," which was this blog's tagline for a while. This album is good and you should hear it. End of story.

Arista Demos (1978)

Yeah…so…apparently they…wanted to be signed by Arista. So…they sent in these six songs. And…they weren't signed. And…I wouldn't have signed them either, frankly. Okay, enough ellipses! These are very rough. They sound like they were recorded in a well, although it's conceivable that that's just my copy. Even if they didn't, though, they're just not very interesting. Maybe if they were redone, they could be worth something. Maybe. If I have to list a highlight, I suppose it would be "B.R.E.A.T.H.E.," a song about the virtues of…breathing. There's those damned ellipses again. But they just won't quit! There's an okay Meat Loaf song. Actually, it was originally recorded by the not-at-all-suggestively-named Pandora's Box. Okay, so now I'm engaged in pointless free association. But I just don't have much to say here. "Get Laid" is okay, I guess, though nowhere near as good as actually getting laid. "Trying Day?" Maybe. I don't know. Look, you're only going to seek this out if you're an extremely hardcore fan, and in that case, you might find it vaguely interesting. If you're not, you definitely wouldn't, but you'll never hear it. So I guess it works out okay in the end. Anyway! On to much, much better things.

Introducing Sparks (1977)

This was sort of infamous for, until recently, being the one Sparks record never released on CD. It takes a lot of flack for sounding pretty mainstream (although really, it ain't that different from Big Beat)--it was recorded with expensive session musicians to try to break in to the US market. This does not appear to have worked even slightly, and honestly, it is a little lackluster--but with triumphant exceptions!

Two words: "Goofing Off." It's an exhilarating song, sounding like some sort of Eastern European folk dance, all about the pleasures of the title activity. It's baffling that it wasn't released as a single, since it's so obviously the album's highlight. Also notable is the Beach Boys pastiche "Over the Summer;" it doesn't do anything super-revolutionary with the concept, but what it does it does damned well, and you can't not like it. Finally, there's "Those Mysteries," a sort of operatic thing with a kid asking kid-type questions (Why is there time? And why is there space? Why is there France? And why is there Spain?). It's good. The rest of the album? Eh. Not awful, but nothing that spectacular. Certainly not one for the record books, unless there's some sort of record for middling albums.

Big Beat (1976)

A bit more of a conventional drums-n-guitars sound than its predecessors, which is part of the reason it's a bit less interesting. The other part is that the songs are generally a bit less strong. That doesn't mean it's not a pretty good album, though. It is! It only suffers when judged against the extremely high standards that the band had previously set, and then only a bit.

"Everybody's Stupid" is very funny, and you can't resist singing along with the "everybody's stupid--that's for sure" refrain. "I Bought the Mississippi River" is agreeable zany--sorta makes me think of the title character in Autumn of the Patriarch selling the Caribbean. But not really. "Big Boy" is good also. And of course, there's the outrageously offensive "Throw Her Away (and get a new one)." Good stuff in general, but not quite transcendent. I honestly don't find myself playing this one that often.

The current CD version features a handful of non-album tracks, including the great "England" and a truly inexplicable cover of "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

Indiscreet (1975)

This is a particular favorite of mine. I know it's not really as good as its predecessors, but I find myself playing it more than any of them. "Pineapple" may be the first time that there appears to be something slightly calculated about the whimsicality, but I just can't bring myself to care. It's about…well, it's pretty self-evident, really, and you have to love lyrics like "Got a contract for all of the schools/They will use it for all of their meals/Sure the kids will throw it real far/'Cause it ain't a milk chocolate bar/But you know it don't stain so bad./But won't they fling it at a friend and then shout:/Pineapple! Tastes too healthy to me/Pineapple! Filled with vitamin C/Pineapple! Fulfills very need."

And then there's the ever-great "Tits," where the guy's drinking with his friend who, it transpires, is cuckolding him; it's all about tits as an erotic versus nurturing signifier, as in "For months, for years, 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." Great chorus; great song.

A particular shout-out must go to the endlessly charming "Under the Table with Her," about a young kid bored at a fancy dinner slipping under the table with his little girlfriend. Ron's really captured the tone of being a small child caught in an uninteresting, alien, adult world, I think. And how about "Without Using Hands," a song which seems to be about a bunch of bon vivants getting laid in Paris ("without using hands," get it? Okay)--until the end, where there's an explosion at the hotel, and the manager is literally "going to live his entire life without using hands"--all in the same sprightly tone. Macabre!

I could go on--"It Ain't 1918" and "Get in the Swing" are especially newsworthy--but hopefully the point has been made. I like this album a whooooole lot.

Propaganda (1974)

Kimono My House part two, basically. A little weaker, perhaps, but only a little, and when I'm listening to it, it's easy to convince myself that it is in fact better. There's "B.C.," which opens with the lines "My name's Aaron, my wife's Betty, and our boy's a Charlie, so the neighbors sing 'hooray for ABC!'" I do not have the critical vocabulary to even begin to discuss the sort of strangeness that lyrics like this display. But it's great! The song is about the dissolution of the relationship in question, and don't think it ignores the title's "Before Christ" connotation.

Then there's a song like "Thanks but No Thanks," where a kid is forced to deal with the deadly specter of the oft-warned of Strangers. It is cool. And "Bon Voyage," a jaunty little number that turns out to be surprisingly grim, sung as it is by animals who are being left off the ark. "At Home, At Work, At Play," "Don't Leave Me Alone with Her," and "Reinforcements" are also all BIG WINNERS.

"Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" gets its own paragraph because it may well be Ron's lyrical pinnacle. It's a short song, but you could subject the lyrics to endless analysis. Natural disaster? Environmentalism? Betrayal? Jealousy? Infidelity? Even the title is polysemic. And the swooping, swoony tune doesn't hurt either.

Yeah, you need this album.

Kimono My House (1974)

See, quite often, I don't get etymologies and plays on words. It's a mental blind spot I have. I just have this tendency to not even think about these things, but rather just accept them. Still, I was embarrassed--and sort of stunned--when, just a few weeks ago, watching an interview and hearing Russell actually speak this album's title, it finally clicked into place. Unbelievable--you listen to an album eighteen billion times, and even when you hear it sung--nothin'. Then, all of a sudden, WHAM. It's like I'm born again or something.

As any fan will tell you, possibly grabbing you by the lapel and violently shaking you for emphasis, this is an extraordinary album, and--for my money--all the more so given what a…I don't want to say "leap forward," exactly, because god forbid I should malign the first too albums, but--well, let's just say, how different it sounds--so instantly fully-formed and self-assured. I don't know that I would quite call it "perfect" (blasphemy!); there are a few songs that I'm not super blown away by. Sorry, kids, but great title aside, "Thank God it's Not Christmas" leaves me a little cold.

But why be negative? "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us" was a big hit in Britain, and it deserved it. I would characterize it as the most surreal panic attack ever put to music. You have these goofy yet tense torrents of consciousness interrupted by the repeated "Heartbeat! Increasing heartbeat!" Plus, the sound of gunfire. It's really not like anything else you will ever hear.

"Amateur Hour" is just as good, a mischievous, totally infectious song about reaching sexual awareness/maturity with lyrics that brilliantly showcase Ron Mael's sensibilities. "Lawns grow plush in the hinterlands," goes the first line, and you sort of have to think that whoever approved the song as a single didn't exactly get what Russell was singing about here. "Girls grow tops to be topless in" is another favorite line. Really you cannot expect lyrics this good from almost anyone else.

And so it goes. I could highlight almost every song, but we'd be here all day. Still, a word for "Hasta Mañana, Monsieur," a funny, impressionistic number about a confused tourist trying to put the moves on a local with only half-remembered high school language classes to go on. Lots of great lines. "You mentioned Kant and I was shocked (so shocked)/You know where I come from none of the girls have such foul tongues." Also, the eerie, winding closer, "Equator," where the guy is supposed to meet a girl on the Equator, but she's not there--turns out "The Equator" is not as precise a location as one had thought.

Anyway, there's no way to be a Sparks fan without this album. I would note that it's also rather necessary to listen to it at least a few times with the lyrics in front of you (as is the next album). It took me a while to warm to, mainly because of neglecting that part of the equation.

A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing (1972)

The first album had a song ("Fa La Fa Lee") about incest. This one kicks it up a notch with "Angus Desire," a nice little number about bestiality. That's what I call bringing your A game!

That's the story of this album--it really cranks up the weirdness, to great effect. I think this album is better than the first. It is absolutely like nothing else, for certain. My favorite may well be the forty-three second "Batteries not Included," a tale of pathos and terror about--well, the title pretty much tells it all. Then again, there's always "Here Comes Bob," a great, propulsive song about a guy who makes friends with people by crashing his car into theirs. "Sometimes I will stoop to hitting two-door coupes without the frills, but that is just for casual acquaintances, for stripped-down thrills. But for affairs of staying power, I go after limousines. For a group encounter, I'll hit busses, mobile homes, or trains to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania." It's nuttily great! My favorite part is the end where he imagines how eventually he'll probably be arrested and the judge will declare "Bob, you've got a bad means to a worthwhile end." The childlike belief that the judge will recognize the value in making friends even as he condemns the acts themselves really sells the character.

That's not all, folks. Almost everything is worthwhile. "Moon over Kentucky" is a truly inexplicable, vaguely sinister love song to the Moon, "Nothing Is Sacred" is an evocative, dystopian number, and I can't even begin to characterize the lyrics to "Beaver O'Lindy" (there's no way to use the word "beaver" in a song without making it sound incredibly dirty, is there?). And then there's "Do Re Mi," a frenzied Rogers and Hammerstein cover, and one of the few cover versions the band has ever done.

This album is way too strange not to listen to. Check it out.

Sparks (né Halfnelson) (1971)

The first album! It took me quite a while to really get into the Halfnelson material, I have to say. It just sounded sort of thin and cramped compared to the widescreen, full-stereo of Kimono My House and Propaganda. And it's true to an extent; it does sound a bit more like a prelude than a fully-formed creation, both musically and lyrically. But repeated run-throughs revealed rewards. Boy oh boy is "Fletcher Honorama" a strange and creepy song, about an old man dying as his kinfolk serenade him. It sounds like it could be a Munly song, which is a very strange thing to say about anything coming out of Sparks.

Also of note: "Big Bands," with very accomplished, poignant lyrics about a poor, former musician with a collection of every big band record ever made and trying to get by and maybe find love. I feel like someone should make a movie out of this song. And there's "(No More) Mr. Nice Guy," which preempts the Alice Cooper song of that name and rocks surprisingly hard.

Generally, this has a vibe of sort of low-key, minimalistic heartfeltness, as particularly evident on tracks like "Wonder Girl" (a minor local hit!), "High C," "Slow Boat," and "Simple Ballet." I would generally recommend it, although probably not as one's first foray into Sparksdom.

Halfnelson Demos (1968)

A note on nomenclature: this unreleased 1968 album was entitled A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing. However, it went unreleased, and the band's second--completely different--album borrowed that name. For that reason, we generally just stick with the descriptive "Halfnelson Demos" when talking about this here piece of work.

Unreleased, yes (two of the tracks, "Roger" and "Saccharin and the War," were rerecorded for the band's subsequent album). And for the life of me, I couldn't tell you WHY there's never been an official release. At any rate, you can find it easily enough on teh intertrons. And you should if you're any kind of Sparks fan, because this is revelatory stuff: the band seemed kind of out-of-time from the beginning; you certainly couldn't place them in any particular musical period. But these demos reveal the shocking truth: Sparks in its initial incarnation was as an honest-to-god sixties psychedelic garage band, not unlike the sorts of acts you'd hear on Rhino's Nuggets anthologies. Just listen to "Join the Firm" or "The Factory!" It's easy to imagine one of these appearing on one of those. Whaddaya know.

It would definitely be one of the highlights, though--it may not blow your mind, but it's pretty cool, atmospheric stuff. "Arts & Crafts Spectacular" is a song about…well, the title about sums it up. It is cool and strange. Likewise "Johnny's Adventure" (no relation to Indiscreet's "It Ain't 1918"). "The Animals at Jason's Bar and Grill" is about what happens when the animals want to eat there. Naturellement! Basically, there's a lot to grok here, and grokking is highly recommended, especially given that you'll have to download it for free--you couldn't pay for it if you wanted to.