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After more than a half-century in action, brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who record as Sparks, are having a big moment lately. California-bred, though they’ve always sounded vaguely European, the Maels were the subject of Edgar Wright’s 2021 documentary feature, The Sparks Brothers, and wrote the story and music for French director Leos Carax’s 2021 musical film, Annette. Best of all, Sparks’ most recent studio albums, 2017’s Hippopotamus and 2020’s A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, have found Ron (keyboards) and Russell (vocals) still in peak form, their vibrant music undiminished by time.
Sparks’ sound has evolved, from fizzy rock’n’roll in the early days to a more elaborate orchestral approach, but the essence has remained the same. Blending intricate yet pop-friendly melodies, witty, often sardonic lyrics and Russell’s anxious, trilling voice (which has aged gracefully), the Maels never relax. Think Randy Newman’s wicked humor crossed with Queen’s grand gestures, though Sparks is a really a genre unto itself.
Sensibly taking advantage of their current higher profile, the Maels have chosen to reissue a quintet of overlooked albums from early in the century, all save one with bonus tracks. Balls (2000), Lil’ Beethoven (2002) and Hello Young Lovers (2006) are out now, while Exotic Creatures of the Deep (2008) and The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman (2009) will be available in late May.
While each album boasts delightful highlights, there’s hardly a dull moment anywhere. Balls includes “It’s a Knockoff” (“I confess that this is really not my song / I bought it in Hong Kong”) and “How to Get Your Ass Kicked.” Lil’ Beethoven features “What Are All These Bands So Angry About?” and “Suburban Homeboy” (“I say ‘yo dog’ to my pool cleaning guy”). Hello Young Lovers includes “(Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country?” and the unlikely cover “We Are the Clash.”
Exotic Creatures of the Deep contains such tracks as “Lighten Up, Morrissey” and “I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall for All the Crap in This Song.” The least-accessible (though still engaging) offering of the bunch, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman is a radio musical about the renowned director that was commissioned by Swedish National Radio.
Wrapping piercing intelligence in a cloak of self-conscious frivolity, Sparks is high-minded entertainment of the very best sort.
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