The first two Sparks albums

The reissue label Wounded Bird Records is reissuing the first two albums by Sparks, the strange long-running musical project of brothers Ron and Russell Mael. Those albums are the self-titled Sparks (1971) and A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing (1972). Both CDs are being released on Tuesday. To the best of my knowledge, it will be the first time either of them have been available on CD in the U.S. The Wounded Bird website is here:

http://www.woundedbird.com

For those not familiar with Sparks, they have a long and complicated history that isn't over yet. (Their 20th album, Hello Young Lovers, is being released next month in some countries, although the U.S. does not appear to be one of those countries). The Mael brothers (the only two constant members) were born in Los Angeles, but you wouldn't know it from their seemingly Euro-centric sound. In fact, they never achieved commercial success in America, but they were all the rage in England in the mid-'70's, when they successfully appealed to that country's glam-rock market. Although they have been compared to David Bowie, Queen, Roxy Music, and ELO, they really sound like no one else. They have often used some of the same ingredients as those artists, but their brand of art-pop has often been the exact opposite of conventional music. Russell Mael's deranged falsetto, Ron Mael's musical experimentation, and the duo's strange sense of humor have always made them unique -- and understandably hated by many who have heard them. Their output over the years has been about as inconsistent as can be, but some people love them for that reason.

The two early-'70's albums that are being re-released on Tuesday were the only two that were recorded by the original quintet, which included another pair of brothers: future record producer Earle Mankey, and future Concrete Blonde founder Jim Mankey. They were originally known as Halfnelson before being convinced to change the name to Sparks.

The self-titled 1971 debut is the band's original demo tape, cleaned up by the production hand of Todd Rundgren. Rundgren was able to get the band signed to the Bearsville label after numerous labels rejected them. The album was a sparse and very unique mixture of German cabaret music and rock primitivism, placing Russell's nervous falsetto against a more subtle backdrop dominated by Ron's clunky organ and low-budget tape-loop experimentation. The lyrics are surreal and often nonsensical. The lead-off track "Wonder Girl" very nearly became a U.S. hit single -- and inexplicably became a regional #1 hit in Montgomery, Alabama! That song even helped them get a TV appearance on American Bandstand, whose audience must have been bewildered. The song "Biology 2" was written and sung by Earle Mankey, and it actually presages the work that his brother Jim would do with Concrete Blonde many years later. The snappy closing song "No More Mr. Nice Guys" is unrelated to the similarly titled Alice Cooper song; in fact, it predates it! Sparks is definitely not for all tastes, but it's about as uncompromising as albums get.

That same description applies to the follow-up A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing, which is more fully realized in terms of sound, but is no more conventional or commercial. In fact, it pushes the surrealism even further. A bizarre cover of "Do-Re-Mi" from The Sound Of Music fits right in with the Maels' aggressively weird creations, which are full of quick-tempo changes that must have been totally unusual at that time. This 1972 album was at least ten years ahead of its time; early-'80's new wave and synth-pop are the styles that it bears the most resemblance to. A very cool alternative classic that flouted all musical convention, and probably inspired others to do the same.

As of now, the vast majority of the later Sparks albums are still out of print in the U.S. It will be interesting to see if more become available in the future. Those who wish to investigate the larger Sparks story are advised to search out the 2-CD/2-cassette compilation Profile: The Ultimate Sparks Collection. That 1991 release provides the best overview of the Mael brothers' first two decades, and will help you decide if you wish to investigate further.

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