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Sparks - Introducing Sparks CD (album) cover




Crossover Prog

3.25 | 23 ratings

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4 stars It would be hard to imagine a Sparks album less in tune with 1977 than this one is. This album sold horrendously, was savaged by critics, and for years remained the only 70s Sparks album unavailable on CD (and when Sparks finally got around to issuing it on their own label in 2007, they used a vinyl LP rather than the master tapes as the source). The album cover is barf-inducing (though I have to imagine this was done on purpose; the idea of putting Ron Mael on a cover, dressed like that, using that font, and with THAT MUSTACHE, is ludicrous enough that they had to be aware of this), the sound produced by the army of session musicians is slick in a way that befits all bad stereotypes of late 70s AOR, and it doesn't even have a stupidly off-kilter mix along the lines of Big Beat to make it stand out. It's an album whose primary purpose seems to be hated by fans and ignored by everybody else.

Well, I'm probably a dolt, and because of this I like pretty much every song on here (I guess I'm not really that thrilled with with "I'm Not" or "Girls on the Brain" but I still find them interesting). I don't think I love any of them, but underneath the sheen of slick session work there are fun and memorable melodies, odd topics in the lyrics, and fascinating mishmashes of styles (in other words, the staples of Sparks at their best). One odd feature that makes a repeated appearance is a sudden interest in taking on (superficial) aspects of the Beach Boys in the vocals; "A Big Surprise," "Ladies" and especially "Over the Summer" sound unnervingly like the cliched version of the band that the Beach Boys were in the process of becoming (which wouldn't reach full flight until later), and while it's a little weird that Ron and Russell would want to start aping them in 1977, when the Beach Boys were no longer remotely cool, it's a fun additional detail. "A Big Surprise" also immediately shows that Ron's keyboards are going to be an important part of the band's sound again, and the mix of these fun lyrics (best lines: "Somebody told me how the motion picture would end/I turned and glared at them/And then I read the way the world was going to end/With a whimpering sound, not a banging away/I'm sorry I gave it away") with that stupendous vocal melody (the twist in the chorus is also glorious) is enough to put me in a great mood right away. "Ladies" is a tribute to all of the various ladies in Ron's life, such as Dinah Shore, Sara Lee and Betty Crocker, and while there's nothing remotely serious about the song, I find it to be a crack-up. And "Over the Summer," which milks the Beach Boys harmony style best of all, is a reminiscience of those great times in high school when you'd come back from summer vacation and find that lots of girls had managed to blossom since you'd last seen them, and the song feels like, with a little bit of tweaking, it could have fit into one of the early Beach Boys albums just fine.

On side one, the best of the three unmentioned tracks is "Occupation," a speedy rocker (with an odd keyboard sound fading in and out) that gives Russell a chance to sing Ron's 4- line musings about a whole bunch of different professions. Sample lyrics: "We pilots take you anywhere/We'll be your father in the air/We'll try to look calm and cool/But we're as scared as all of you." "I'm Not" is an oddly constructed combination of a lumbering rhythm section (the Big Beat mix would be VERY beneficial here, but alas the drums aren't as loud as they should be) and lighter harmonies, and it's kind of a mess, but it's a mess I never find myself skipping over. "Forever Young," which closes out the side, isn't quite on the level of the Dylan song it's clearly referencing, but it's fun to have a return to some of the glam aspects (in the guitars) of the '74 albums, and the voice-of-God proclamations from Russell right before the last verse help make this into a great pisstake on generic 70s anthems.

On side two, aside from "Over the Summer" and "Girls on the Brain" (Sparks doing a bluesy number about the way you could expect Sparks to, with lyrics that are about what you would expect from a Sparks song with that title), there are a couple of really nice numbers in "Goofing Off" and "Those Mysteries." "Goofing Off" is a song about taking full advantage of the weekend, set to a nagging melody that's ambiguously ethnic (mostly Jewish in the tune but with a pseudo-Greek rhythm) and chock-full of the kinds of silly hooks that I'm always a sucker for. And finally, "Those Mysteries" is a surprisingly tender and nostalgic glimpse at the life of a young kid who has questions about everything in the universe (and certainly more than their dad would want to answer), and just like with "Miss the Start, Miss the End," it shows that Sparks could balance the silly and snide with the emotionally earnest just fine if they wanted to. The music is very conventional, but it's lovely nonetheless, and Russell's vocal delivery is just swell.

This isn't a remotely important album by any means, and the legacy of Sparks wouldn't suffer at all if the band had somehow jumped directly from Big Beat to No. 1 in Heaven without recording this in between, but it deserves a better reputation than it's had since its release. Making another album like this probably would have been a really bad idea, though, and I'm glad they went for something so different with the next album.

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |


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