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



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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.

Report this review (#1123353)
Posted Tuesday, January 28, 2014 | Review Permalink
4 stars Before Sparks were Sparks, they got together with Todd Rundgren to create this debut album originally issued under the band's old name of Halfnelson. The askew Mael brothers approach to glam rock is already in evidence, and whilst it doesn't quite hit the distinctive operatic hysteria of Kimono My House it's still a credible entry in the band's discography. The flow is interrupted by Biology 2, a ditty by guitarist Earle Mankey that includes rhymes such as "phenotype" and "genotype" which ticks the "weird" box but not the "catchy" box, and if it ain't weirdly catchy arguably it isn't Sparks, but otherwise a fine debut.
Report this review (#1146597)
Posted Tuesday, March 11, 2014 | Review Permalink
siLLy puPPy
PSIKE, JR/F/Canterbury & Eclectic Teams
5 stars The first new wave album? Maybe not quite but a prototype of what was to come.

The creative and spastic team of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, better known as SPARKS has become notorious for being one of the quirkiest progressive art pop zolo glam rock artists in the last half century and are still going strong to this day. This Los Angeles duo decided to create their first band all the way back in 1968 when they teamed up under the name HALFNELSON. Having rejected the hippie folk and rock that was en vogue in the late 60s California scene, Ron on keyboards and Russell as vocalist would turn many a head when they performed completely off-kilter art pop that exhibited sophisticated Baroque pop, intelligently designed lyrics and quirky left field constructs that were made all the more strange by the duo's unique theatrical stage presence that found Russell displaying hyperactive performances with a distinctly idiosyncratic falsetto while Ron playing keys in a detached and stoic manner.

While distancing themselves from their LA contemporaries, the duo looked eastward towards the British scene where they found more inspiration from disparate acts such as The Who, The Kinks, The Move and Pink Floyd. It didn't take long after their formation in 1968 that they caught the attention of Todd Rundgren who immediately signed them to his Bearsville label. While the duo would be the focal point of attention, the band was rounded off with Earle Manley on guitar and his brother James on bass and released the eponymously titled debut HALFNELSON in 1971 to little fanfare. After a little changing things up which included the band name becoming SPARKS and a new album cover, the HALFNELSON debut become the first self-titled SPARKS album when re-released in 1972 which proved to be the magic bullet. The same album retitled as SPARKS ushered in the band's first minor hit in the form of "Wonder Girl."

While still HALFNELSON, Ron and Russell were well ahead of their time as they crafted a distinct sound that would blend glam rock, progressive art pop and a hyper spastic feel that would eventually become known as zolo. This amalgamation of ideas would become the staple for bands like Roxy Music, Split Enz, XTC, Devo and countless others as the 70s ceded into the 80s. The HALFNELSON / SPARKS debut is a powerhouse of ideas that range from the prognosticating "Fa La Fa Lee" which sounds a lot like the synthpop that would emerge at the end of the decade and a major ingredient of the new wave that swept the late 70s and early 80s, to the bizarre early indie pop weirdness of "Biology 2" which sounds a lot like the brain melting helium voiced weirdness that Ween would capture and bring to the limelight in the 90s. Tracks like "Roger" are quirky little numbers that mix a heavy classical piano influence with bubblegum pop hooks but corrupt them into a crazed mix of time signature liberties that jitter around the main beat.

"High C" which sounds like a David Bowie on acid type of track displays a basic glam rock groove that intertwines country slide guitar, new wave type of synthpop hooks and the ultimate vocal weirdness that displays Russell's eccentric abilities that make Freddie Mercury sound like an amateur as he whizzes up and down the scale. "Simple Ballet" shows an explorative show tune sort of proclivity while "Slowboat" proves that the duo aren't just about weirdness but that they can also write beautiful ballads that don't resort to extremes yet even here they think out of the box with a Baroque piano solo and ends with an energetic guitar performance. "Saccharin And The War" is the most rockin' and also most progressive track on the album as it ramps up the guitar heft and adds some time sig deviations as Russell wails away sounding like he's a cross between the singers of Gnidrolog and Pavlov's Dog. "(No More) Mr. Nice Guys" sounds somewhat like the soundtrack to the Rocky Horror Picture Show" which wouldn't come out until 1975.

The first SPARKS album which began as a HALFNELSON album is a true freak of nature that must've come as a complete shock to anyone who would've experienced it at the time. It was so different than virtually anything else that existed and an obvious influence for much of the glam rock and indie pop of the future. While clearly more pop than rock, SPARKS were about as creatively experimental as you could get back in the early 70s within that world. This is a brilliant album as it shows the two brothers pretty much doing things exactly as they wanted and the album is all the better for it. While SPARKS wouldn't hit it big until their third album "Kimono In The House" which would become an international hit after they relocated to England, their first two albums are excellent slices of quirky, slightly progressive pop as well with the eponymous debut being the better of the two. While these early albums are precursors of the new wave movement that emerged towards the end of the decade in which SPARKS would be a key player in as well, on the first album it's obvious that they were the progenitors of the quirky zolo art pop turned new wave branch of the post-punk era as well. Not bad guys.

Report this review (#2047032)
Posted Monday, October 22, 2018 | Review Permalink

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