Review: Duluth News Tribune

Duluth News Tribune (January 2, 2014)
Sparks anthology a good introduction
(Review: New Music for Amnesiacs, The Ultimate Collection)

Sparks anthology a good introduction

The career-retrospective anthology is one of those major milestones for a band. It says that their decades of hard work were not just disposable noise, and that their career was actually an ongoing chapter book, each segment filled with fresh songs that advance the narrative of their life’s work. It’s also a way to gouge loyal fans for extra dough without much effort.

This Sparks anthology is composed of four discs of songs, a hardback book, and some other bits and bobs of collectability, but let’s talk about the music. Because it’s just plain great, and it demonstrates another effect that an anthology can have on a listener: it’s the where-have-I-been-all-this-time effect.

No one can be blamed for not knowing the music of Sparks. They had a couple of British hits in the early to mid-’70s, and that’s about the height of their fame. They spent years in the wilderness, making dance-pop that even their fans found wanting. Recently, they wrote a rock opera in Swedish about the life of noted film director Ingmar Bergman. Pretty much, they’ve been asking for their cult status all along. Add to this the fact that keyboardist and songwriter Ron Mael dressed like an accountant, sat stock-still on stage, and wore a toothbrush mustache in the age of glam rock, well, you’re pretty much attending a foot-shooting party here.

But dig in to this collection, and it’s hard to say that Mael, as a songwriter, is anything but a genius along the lines of a Ray Davies or even a non-rock composer like Cole Porter. His lyrics are brilliant, winding, cutting streams of eloquence and wit, and his music is hook-laden, surprising and thrilling. As sung by his brother Russell, they come to life through a high, trembling Tiny Tim falsetto.

Again, not a recipe for commercial success. But who needs commercial success when you’re making the kind of music featured on this album?

The kingpin is “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us,” easily the band’s best-known song. And it is a great one. “Heartbeat / increasing heartbeat,” Russell sings, repeatedly. The song ratchets up the tension over its verses and then blows off steam by a recitation of the song’s title followed by the kiss-off line “And it ain’t me who’s gonna leave!”

The tune shows off the band’s most-loved lineup — the art-glam Sparks, the ones who made the classic albums “Kimono My House,” “Propaganda,” and “Indiscreet.” Other songs from these LP’s are featured on the first disc of the compilation, and some of them are just some of the coolest rock music ever made. “At Home At Work At Play,” “Something For The Girl With Everything,” “Hospitality On Parade” — the high points of these brilliant albums are here. (Pro tip: if you listen to these songs and like them, just go ahead and get the albums they are taken from. “Propaganda” in particular is top-to-bottom perfection.)

The other three discs can’t match the high-wire-act tone of the pre-dance-music Sparks, but there are gems to be found, many of which have hilarious titles: “Tips For Teens,” “Number One In Heaven,” “I Wish I Looked A Little Better,” “Suburban Homeboy,” “Lighten Up, Morrissey.”

This collection is a good place to start for Sparks neophytes, and it’s also available in a two-disc version for those who don’t need the book and the other jazz. But keep in mind that it might not all be your bag; after all, 40 years of oddball music by a shape-shifting group led by two bizarre brothers is hard to sum up, even given four discs.

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