There’s something wonderful about the concept of a band like Sparks. The band boasts of two brothers from Los Angeles – one who is the singer and looks like a fluffed-up version of Roger Daltrey (Russell Mael), and another is a scowling keyboardist who either comes across as a mustached version of Charlie Chaplin or, at worst, Adolf Hitler (Ron Mael). Both had a background in fashion modelling, so you could surmise that, right there, as musicians, they might have a flair for the extravagant. With a penchant for humor on the lyrics sheet (barely discernible due to the mix of some of the vocals), and a career that spans UK glam, disco, new wave, chamber rock, and all sorts of genres peppered throughout their history, Sparks should come across as an utter trainwreck. How can a band span so many styles? The thing is, when the band is “on”, they really hit the mark and that’s what makes them so wonderful.
But, of course, when the band tries to sound relatively contemporary to whatever era they’re in, they sometimes stumble. Still, there’s an overall winning quality to the group, which, despite their American origins, come across as sounding more European (indeed, much of their initial success was in England) and they’ve managed to survive the changing whims of the recording industry for more than 40 years. They have picked up a variety of fans in bands, they’re pretty much “musician’s musicians”, ranging from the serious (Kurt Cobain) to the silly (Ween, They Might Be Giants). Even if the Mael Brothers’ most strident success came with a song about a movie cliché (“This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us”), there are definite highlights, and, yes, some lowlights, to be had on much of their discography. So it shouldn’t be a shock that the band of brothers now have a career spanning, four CD (five, if you count a bonus live disc in the collection that wasn’t made available to reviewers) box set called New Music for Amnesiacs, the Ultimate Collection. And the title is right: if you remember them, you might not understand the full breadth of the group’s discography, owing to the fact that they’re remembered best for their one big hit.
But who is this box set really for? It’s hard to tell. Novice fans could find the band’s 22 studio albums by scouring bargain bins and used record stores, and, arguably, the only album that you absolutely, genuinely need is 1974’s fusion of ‘gum (as in bubble) and glam, Kimono My House, which happens to rank at No. 698 on that Most Acclaimed Albums of All Time list that my friends over in the Counterbalance column are going through (it’ll take them a few years before they get to this one, granted). Old fans? Well, you probably have all of the original albums owing to the band’s status as a cult band (which the band coyly note in the booklet in the box set translates as meaning they’re not popular), and, aside from an unreleased version of “Tryouts for the Human Race” and a few edited versions of songs fans might not have, there’s very little in terms of rarities or unreleased gems from the vaults. That leaves New Music for Amnesiacs in a position where it ranks as a glorified Greatest Hits set at a staggering 81 songs long. That’s a lot (arguably too much) of Sparks, and, just by floating around a few UK blogs, some of the band’s biggest fans are reeling at the sticker shock: This set costs roughly £100 in Britain, which generally translates into $200 in most North American denominations, give or take a few bucks. Whether or not you want to dole out that much cash for what will amount to, for most fans, a hardcover book, photo proof sheets, and handwritten lyrics, among other odds and ends, it depends upon how diehard you are. And, even then, you might be underwhelmed.
That’s not to say that a band like Sparks, with more than 40 years of history and songs, doesn’t deserve a box set, but any overview of the band could use some judicious trimming as opposed to the binge treatment given here. If you subscribe to the law of averages, each album on this set is represented by roughly four songs per album (some less, some more). And there are definite peaks and valleys in the band’s discography, as varied musically as it is, and the valleys can definitely be skipped over. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the band’s best material comes with Disc One, which covers the band’s early to mid-‘70s heyday. While the earliest material to be had here (“Wonder Girl”) sounds like it is of demo quality, it does showcase something interesting: The band’s first album was produced by none other than Todd Rundgren, and the variation between the careers of Rundgren and Sparks could not be more pronounced. While Rundgren got very insular and navel-gazey and self-indulgent in the mid-‘70s before veering back into commerciality by the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Sparks, on the other hand, were swinging for the fences and willing to attach themselves to anything that would push units, so long as they could put their own definite stamp on the material. That’s what makes a song like “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” so beguiling.
Coming a year before “Bohemian Rhapsody” made a dent on the charts, “This Town … ” is a glammed-up, operatic bit of rock and roll defused into a unit shifting friendly three minutes on the mark. Compared to the 1997 version with Faith No More found on Disc Three, which is utterly redundant as it does nothing to improve on the original (and, in fact, sounds almost exactly the same despite Mike Patton’s growling trade-offs), the 1974 version of “This Town …” is a delightful gem and the definite high water mark of the band’s discography. I was going to joke earlier that if you wanted to make a Greatest Hits Sparks CD, you could make a mixtape consisting solely of this one song over and over again. Peaking at Number Two in Britain, and cementing the band’s strange success overseas at the cost of American indifference, “This Town … ” might be the group’s biggest hit, or, at least, most remembered, and is the group’s funnest (and funniest) moment. However, the remainder of Disc One showcases a flair for crunchy, humorous power pop that made Sparks the rivals of 10cc.
“Big Boy” is a boisterous stab at garage rock (one that sounds oddly pre-Spinal Tap-esque) and there are even a few cuts that have a very vaudevillian feel (“Tearing the Place Apart”, the jazzy “Looks, Looks, Looks” and “Get in the Swing”). Granted, much of the most agreeable music here does come straight from Kimono My House: the rollicking “Amateur Hour”, the delightful handclaps of “Talent Is an Asset” and strange caterwauling of “Equator”. Still, aside from perhaps the rough woodshed quality of the earliest stuff, Disc One is essentially a repackaging of the group’s Greatest Hits from the Island Record years.
That’s not to say that Disc Two isn’t interesting. Covering a period from the late ‘70s to the mid-‘80s, this CD shows the band realizing that bubblegummy glam rock wasn’t so much in vogue, and had to change their tack. That the group would gravitate toward disco, and work with maestro Giorgio Moroder, is surprising. It’s a definite gear shift, but songs like 1979’s “The Number One Song In Heaven” are interesting because they show the group preserved in amber. There’s no way that such fossils would have a timeless quality attached to them, which is a polite way of saying they’re dated. And, yet, they’re fascinating to revisit because they show a band willing to take new risks and work in a genre that seemed to rub against the very nature of the group’s being. Naturally, the disco era didn’t really last too long – by the time you get around to the tracks from 1979, the Disco Demolition Night-era was undoubtedly in full swing – so Sparks had to beat another retreat, this time into new wave. With songs like the generally more rockist “Tips for Teens” coming on the heels of the group’s disco dance material, Disc Two is rather haphazard and all over the map stylistically. However, it does boast some of the band’s post-glam era most memorable songs, from the aforementioned “The Number One Song In Heaven” to “Angst In My Pants” to “Cool Places”, the latter of which is a duet with Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s. You listen to certain songs on this and wonder, “Why didn’t ‘I Married a Martian’, despite its silly title, become a huge hit, because, dang, it’s quite catchy?”
But if Disc Two has material that seems quite behind the times, wait until you get a load of Disc Three, which covers the latter ‘80s into the ‘90s. The first eight or so songs on the platter can be skipped over entirely, so laughably polyester they are that you can imagine Ron playing a keytar to much of this material. There’s absolutely nothing worthwhile here, until, that is, you get to selections from 1994’s comeback album Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins. Taking cues from the dance pop of British bands such as Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode, the group takes flight on “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’?”, which could be about the fact that Maels were hoping to have yet another hit on their hands, and were worried that their time wasn’t coming. The rouse and handwringing worked: the song topped various European charts, particularly in Germany, and cracked the UK Top 40. The remainder of material from this era of the band is compelling: “Tsui Hark” is an ode to a Hong Kong director that the band had worked with, and even features the titular character himself giving a miniature version of his résumé. It’s glistening techno, along with “(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing”, which is a great and seemingly of the times dance song, and tracks like this tend to hold up remarkably well, some 20 years on.
Disc Four is basically an encapsulation of the double-aughts, and this disc is a bit thin as it covers roughly three albums worth of material (a fourth is skipped over entirely). And, as such, this act of the band is full on in chamber pop mode, with the songs seeking to reach the same operatic tones as “This Town … ” – just without the guitars, at least initially or extremely overtly. I can sum up the reaction to this material in one word: interesting. It’s nice to see the band stretching out and yet sort of returning to some aspect of its roots, but I would suspect that by this point in Sparks’ oeuvre, it’s the long-time fans that really particularly care. So this disc could have been arguably pruned: an amalgam of Discs Three and Four would have been much more tolerable. That said, 40 years on, the band’s humor is still intact, made obvious by my favourite song title of the collection: “Lighten Up, Morrissey”. (The Moz himself, being a man willing to take it on the chin, contributes the introduction to the book included here.) Still, some of the jokes fizzle: “How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?” is nearly four minutes of an old joke overly repeated (the punchline is “practice, man, practice”). When your material is this flimsy, something is suspect. Still, there isn’t an overt embarrassment like the first half of the third disc.
To sum things up, the existence of previous Best Of collections renders a box set like this, without very many musical bells and whistles, rather pointless. And yet, it strengthens the idea that, beyond a smattering of songs that either hit the charts or came very close, there’s some material that’s worthwhile in the Sparks’ deep cuts – notwithstanding that rather crummy period in the ‘80s. That the collection as a whole doesn’t feel cohesive owes to the fact that Sparks were musical chameleons, willing to change their style to make a stab at having chart success, or, paradoxically, to satisfy their own whims when it became apparent that Top Five singles were behind them. Still, it would have been better if these four discs had either been pruned down to a more manageable two or three, or had become separate from each other and offered to fans, new and old, at a discounted price much less than a few hundred clams – even though that probably would have meant a run on the first disc, and lesser attention doled out to the remaining material. It would be unfortunate if that were the scenario, and this is the best argument for the existence of this four CD collection, as Sparks have an interesting history and story to tell. That they can have a career 40 years in the making is a testament to their brotherly bonds and satisfaction with crafting music that beats to the drum of its own drummer. They may be best remembered for “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us”, but New Music for Amnesiacs, no matter its failings, shows that Sparks were more than a one-hit wonder, and had some wonderful stuff buried later on in their career. If you’re new to the group, and have no inclination to wade much further than the hits and better album cuts, this collection might be tailor made just for you. Everyone else? Stick to your record collection, unless you want to spend some sterling on pretty pictures and a book you can put on your coffee table.