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Sparks - Hello Young Lovers

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Artist: Sparks

Album: Hello Young Lovers

Label: In the Red

Review date: Feb. 18, 2006

So far removed are we from the roots of underground and cult music that if you mention Sparks to the youth of today, their eyes light up with thoughts of this crack-in-a-can alcoholic beverage that tastes like a collusion of ground-up SweeTarts and white cross tabs in a Zima. I’d hope that vocalist Russell Mael and his brother, keyboardist Ron Mael, who have been making music under the name Sparks for the past 25 years, are seeing some money from sales of that drink, though truthfully, it’s given out for free at so many parties I don’t know if anyone actually buys it. One could say the same about their career, at least stateside; after twenty albums, their name is still lost on the average person, despite the group having been on the crest of just about every worthwhile musical movement of the ‘70s, and as one of the true innovators of video content for a fledgling MTV. Like the drink, the group excites and sometimes confuses. Unlike the drink, Sparks the band doesn’t leave you with a blinding hangover, but moreover, domestic popularity has eluded them for most of their career, not counting the 1983 collaboration “Cool Places” with former Go-Go and The Surreal Life’s hot, vegan BDSM spinster, Jane Wiedlin.

The music these guys are making in 2006 on their 20th album, Hello Young Lovers, is not all that compositionally different from their first album, back when they were called Halfnelson and worked with Todd Rundgren in 1970. Operatic tendencies and intricate, classically-flecked arrangements have always been a part of their music; it helped usher in the era of glam rock, was an inspiration for power-pop singer-songwriters all over, met Giorgio Moroder on the disco floor, and helped plant the seeds for new wave mania in the ’80s. It’s just their way; this is what they do.

Sparks took a sharp detour from the kind of album their fans expected them to make with 2002’s L’il Beethoven, a largely percussion-less collection of pop songs done up as chamber music where the two struck an unreal balance, one which the group hadn’t fully realized since 1974’s detour Indiscreet. Though its stodginess all but excluded the band from anything having to do with rock music, it worked in a very natural way, with an innocence that wrecked any cries of pretentiousness or inaccessibility – as in the winsome “What Are All These Bands So Angry About?” and the dreamlike, Nilssonian softshoe of “My Baby’s Taking Me Home.”

Using the same tools in this go-round, Hello Young Lovers possesses few of these charms, as if their last struggle within the music industry has embittered the brothers beyond hope. The sound here is inorganic; samples clip from uneven editing and synth patches sound unbearably canned and anaerobic. Russell’s lyrics once again aim for topicality, as in the flamenco-flavored “(Baby, Baby) Can I Invade Your Country,” but it rings stale; in a country whose populace is inundated with political criticism from all sides, singing about the state of affairs in a whimsical manner belongs more to a Mark Russell (of the Capital Steps) than a Russell Mael, and nowhere on a pop record made by smart people. With “As I Sit to Play the Organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral,” jabs are made at an instrumentalist’s duel with God and the fear of being upstaged in religious fervor and personal skill. It’s an interesting concept, but the song offers no conclusion, no narrative to latch onto; just a bunch of dramatic passages, frantically played until silence returns. In “Perfume,” Russell rattles off a list of ladies and the varieties they wear, as if calling out Bryan Ferry’s list of sexual conquests, but claims he prefers “you” because “you don’t wear no perfume.” Atop a burbling synth-bass line, this song again exhibits a wheel-spin, then cuts out. Ditto with “There’s No Such Thing as Aliens.” Repetitive, stormy, singular, with no hooks to engage the crowd. Even the song “Rock, Rock, Rock” – which purposefully does not – decries an audience that is suspicious of the group’s “soft passages” and puts a figurative gun to the group’s head. You’ll get the joke, but you probably won’t laugh, and that’s the problem. Perhaps their last tour, which relied on a strong visual element, left the guys with the notion that the live show’s where fans will be able to revel in their wit. Only problem is that L’il Beethoven didn’t need pictures to make the songs complete.

Hello Young Lovers opens with “Dick Around,” the record’s most ambitious cut, which laments a forced retirement where “all you do is non-essential.” Ruminating on age, fading celebrity, feelings of importance and a stab for renewed relevance, it builds a head of steam that, sadly, spells out the album that follows. It’s painful to write this, really, as Sparks is indeed one of my favorite bands. As innovators and as musicians, they have written more odes to joy over the years than could be thought possible. It’s frustrating to hear them in this context – sounding jaded and uninspired, a slump they haven’t been in since the late ‘80s. It’s doubly frustrating that this record will most likely be lost on fans of In the Red’s typically noisy garage-punk output. They have a loving home, in the right place and time, but it’s not the right record.

By Doug Mosurock

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