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Sparks - Halfnelson [Aka: Sparks] CD (album) cover




Crossover Prog

4.21 | 46 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
5 stars Nobody could have quite realized how much back then, but pairing up Todd Rundgren with Sparks (at the time called Halfnelson, and the debut album originally had that name as well) was a match made in heaven. From the beginning, Sparks had an eccentric, bizarre vision of what rock music could sound like, and it helped immensely to have a producer in place who would accentuate rather than mute that vision. When people rave about how remarkably similar to New Wave music this album sounds despite the fact that it comes from the beginning of the 70s rather than the end, this praise is as much a comment on the fun and games in the production (which would have sounded commonplace in ten years but would have been startling to any contemporary listeners) as on the songs and styles of the album. Naturally, the album sold horribly and Rundgren was replaced for the second album, but time heals all wounds, and the album now stands out as an ahead-of-its-time enjoyable marvel.

The one track on this album that I've never been able to get behind is "Biology 2," but it should be noted that it's by guitarist Earle Mankey, and it doesn't even have Russell on vocals (Earle is responsible for the chipmunk falsetto in this one). It really sounds like a bad parody of every negative stereotype one could associate with the band; it's based around one of the worst clunky guitar riffs I've ever heard from a band I like, and it has high-pitched vocals singing incomprehensible lyrics about reproductive biology on the cellular level. Ok, I'll admit, I allow myself a dumbass smirk at "Oh hold me, you know you are my one and only phenotype, and together we could have a genotype," but I always prefer to skip it, and the album would be noticeably better without it.

The album's pretty amazing aside from that track, fortunately. Two of the tracks, "Roger" and "Saccharin and the War," were penned by Russell, and my mind tends to file them away as "minor" tracks, but they're still interesting. The lyrics to "Roger" are completely incomprehensible even when I'm reading them (hilariously, in the liner notes of my edition of the album, Ron says he doesn't understand the song), but I'm rather interested by the mix of piano, goofy keyboard sounds, and above all that weird loping riff that could be a guitar or a keyboard but still sounds incredibly bizzare either way. "Saccharin and the War" has its own set of interesting-but-bewildering lyrics, but the main appeal is definitely in the music, which starts off as centered around a warm-sounding set of guitar lines and loud bass before turning into a rousing piano-driven coda over that same loud bass and pounding drums.

The rest of the album features credits for Ron Mael, with a few shared by Russell ("Simple Ballet," "Slowboat," "Big Bands") and one shared by bassist Jim Mankey ("(No More) Mr. Nice Guys"), and it's all great to some degree or another. In the hands of a less eccentric group, the great chorus and harmonies of "Wonder Girl" would likely have been grafted into a more conventional power-pop framework, with the lyrics in the verses swapped out for something else. Instead, the sole guitar lick (props to Mark Prindle for catching that it's the first line to "Happy Trails") pops in and out sporadically, and the music mostly centers around drums jumping from channel, light music-hall piano and multiple Russells singing lines like "She was a wonder to her dad / A self-made man who owned all that he had / And after all, self-made men have daughters who just won't ball." The music of "Fa La Fa Lee" is based around a lost Cars outtake that the brothers Mael found after stealing a time machine, reworked to have some gnarly chord sequences, a guitar part that should be followed by a cry of "Charge!" immediately thereafter, a silly bass solo near the end, and a bunch of other things. Oh, and the lyrics are a lament about not being able to commit incest with one's sister because it's against the law.

Three of the remaining tracks are about music in some way: "High C" is about a former opera singer who has had difficulty adjusting to post-fame life; "Simple Ballet" is about creating a ballet for public consumption; "Big Bands" is about a former big band performer who loves the occasions when he still hears this kind of music. "High C" was Ron's favorite track from the first two albums, and that's a perfectly defensible position, even if I don't entirely share the sentiment. Musically, it's a fascinating mix of alternately menacing and jittery keyboards, pounding drums (where some of the drum breaks sound transplanted from a frantic heavy metal passage), one of the weirdest doo-wop vocal sections imaginable, and a one-second guitar part near the beginning unlike anything I can remember hearing. "Simple Ballet" sounds like a music box tune arranged for a full rock band, and there some guitar harmonics in the track that are absolutely beautiful. "Big Bands" is multi-part and its music has nothing to do with its lyrical content; it starts off based around vaudeville piano with touches of guitar here and there, before the vaudeville piano is replaced by a guitar playing jittery notes while the drums build up in volume, and finally finishing with a proto-New Wave fast part that could be considered obnoxious but sounds fine to me.

Elsewhere, "Fletcher Honorama" sounds like gibberish but isn't really (it's about a bunch of friends of Fletcher's essentially getting together for a wake before his death and hoping that he doesn't die and ruin their party), and the music is haunting in a subdued way that really reminds me a lot, in terms of atmosphere, of Dylan's "Visons of Johanna." Quiet organ giving way into soothing music-hall piano, subtle guitar textures and gentle singing dominate the bulk of the song, until the last minute when "So be sure so be sure that the boy don't die before the moooorn" starts being repeated as an ever-loudening mantra. On the other side of "Simple Ballet" comes "Slowboat," a beautiful piano-dominated anthemic ballad that would have been a huge hit in a just world. Maybe there are some goofy guitar (or keyboard maybe?) noises in the middle, but that shouldn't have been enough to hold back a song with a vocal melody that feels so compact and yet so expansive (these should be contradictory descriptions but somehow they're not), and the guitar solo that dominates the last minute is a perfect capstone. Finally, there's the album closer "(No More) Mr. Nice Guys," which shows the band doing its best to make a heavy rocker with what's essentially a jangle guitar tone. I admit that the incongruity between the implicit heaviness and the relatively wimpy guitar tone sounds a little goofy, and I've come across people who hate this song largely for this reason. That said, I think the noisy guitar solo in the middle is every bit as effective as a more traditionally heavy metal solo would be, and I like how nasty Russell makes his voice in parts (especially whenever he sings "The Nice Guys cannot and the Nice Guys shall not, the Nice Guys will not win / won't suffice"), and I find the song pretty great overall.

While I wouldn't quite call this the band's best (by the slightest margin, I would say that the high points on Kimono move that one beyond this), I would definitely say that anybody who considers themselves a serious rock historian needs to hear this album a couple of times. It's definitely an album that somebody could reasonably dislike were they so inclined (possible complaints: too twee, too nonsensical, "Biology 2" is the worst thing ever written), but even as my fandom of the band has tempered through the years, I've found that this one still holds up really well for me. If you don't like this or Kimono, Sparks is probably not for you.

tarkus1980 | 5/5 |


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