When I mention the band Sparks, what comes to mind? The music? Or the look? For four decades, brothers Russell and Ron Mael -- the core and constants of the act -- have struck a distinctively odd-couple stance: singer Russell, with the curly hair and boyish visage to go with his comically operatic falsetto, alongside composer-keyboardist Ron, sporting ‘20s-era slicked-back hair, round specs and creepy mustache to go with the mordant humor of the music.
And when you add in the Mael’s penchant for witty songs with winky titles -- “Angst in my Pants,” “Barbecutie,” “Eaten by the Monster of Love,” that sort of thing -- there might have been a tendency to dismiss them as a novelty act. But "New Music for Amnesiacs," a box set with 82 career-spanning songs, does away with any trace of that notion. That’s no epiphany for Sparks’ dedicated cult, with Morrissey, Kurt Cobain, Def Leppard and no less than Paul McCartney among those who have pledged membership over the years. But taken as a whole, it’s a career of substance and surprises, revealing the fleshed-out creators behind the cartoony caricatures.
Of course, the very fact that they’ve lasted this long is novel in itself. Sibling acts are notoriously flammable. They seemed to spoof that peril in “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us,” all the way back in 1974. It was their breakthrough hit in England, where they landed after failing to make a name in their hometown Los Angeles. In London glam-mad -- land of David Bowie, T.Rex and Roxy Music -- they became the toast of that town.
Courtesy Republic Media
Artwork for the new Sparks album, "New Music for Amnesiacs."
The song is quintessential Sparks: helium-powered Gilbert & Sullivan-esque tableaus, replete with punny wordplay, comical character conflicts, and more than a little sinister undercurrent. But picking a typical Sparks song is a bit trickier. The box traces their arc through various phases, various scenes, and through it all the Maels remained -- willfully -- oddball outsiders.
After a prodigal return to L.A., “Number One Song in Heaven,” a 1979 collaboration with German electronic producer Giorgio Moroder, made the Maels unlikely dance-floor mavens. “Cool Places,” featuring Jane Weidlin of the Go-Gos, put them in heavy MTV rotation.
But it’s many of the non-hits that make the strongest case for a legacy. Beneath the wit a real sentimental streak can be found, as heard in 1994’s “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’.”
And then there’s the fact that some of the most inventive music, the most startling creativity in Sparks’ career has come in an ongoing long-tail run as a truly indie act, after the hits stopped happening. The 2000s brought us the albums "Lil’ Beethoven," "Hello Young Lovers" and "Exotic Creatures of the Deep," plus the radio musical "The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman," all crammed with rich invention and depth that fits in no category. For those who know the band well, the latter half of the set will serve as a reminder of the latter-day achievements. For those less familiar, it’s a treasure trove to explore with relish.
But then, Sparks -- no matter what genres the brothers may have been associated with -- never did fit. That’s a big part of why the span of music in this box, be you amnesiac or not, sounds eternally new.