Reviews

Sparks Still Ignite with 'A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip'

Photo: Anna Webber / Courtesy of Big Hassle Media

After nearly 50 years and two dozen albums, Sparks continue their reign of resonantly quirky art pop-rock delights on A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip.

A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip
Sparks

BMG

15 May 2020

Starting in the very early 1970s, Los Angeles sibling duo Sparks—vocalist Russell Mael and keyboardist Ron Mael—have almost always dominated as a delightfully unusual yet highly intellectual art-rock/art-pop troupe. With help from many other musicians along the way, the pair soar with a beloved balance of appealing hooks, ingenious arrangements, and humorously salient lyricism. Be they older hits like "Here in Heaven" and "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us", or newer gems like the discerningly dramatic "Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)" (from 2017's Hippopotamus, their first new LP in nearly a decade), the band just never seem to lose their, well, spark.

Thankfully, that holds true on their 24th studio record, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip. Arguably a tad more downtrodden and straightforward than its predecessor, the album is yet another remarkable testament to Sparks' enduring appeal and quality.

Although the group are known for their upbeat peculiarities, they're also quite adept at crafting more serious and emotional material. Case in point: opener "All That", a commanding and catchy anthem whose initial influx of horns and echoey chants foreshadows its peppy core. Along the way, acoustic guitar strums, handclaps, strings, harpsichord accentuations, and more complement Mael's trademark fragile Shakespearean resolve. While it's a fairly normal structure, it's nonetheless a gripping way to begin, as it demonstrates how well they can still fuse emotionality and eccentricity.

Likewise, "Pacific Standard Time" is a solemn synthpop trek with both retro 1980s techniques and a modern sheen, whereas "Left Out in the Crowd" is quite malleable, as its coldly tropical vibe incorporates programmed percussion, morose electric piano chords, and stark high-pitched harmonies. Later, "One of the Ages" is more direct and classical before the surreally soothing "Nothing Travels Faster Than the Speed of Light" and the earnestly orchestral finale, "Please Don't Fuck Up My World". Its use of a childlike choir is a particularly effective touch, too.

Elsewhere, the Mael's have a bit more fun and force. For instance, "I'm Toast" is a playful rocker with heavy guitar riffs and purposefully stilted phrasing (a la Joan Jett), while "Sainthood Is Not in Your Future" is very bouncy in-between Mael's isolated declarations. Of course, "Stravinsky's Only Hit" perfectly showcases their knack for historical/literary allusions and fittingly inventive scores, just as the histrionic "Self-Effacing" is packed with amusingly meditative poeticisms and rhymes.

Obviously, "Onomata Pia" carries that torch, but with a stronger focus on lighter arrangements, trickier melodic lines, and intersecting vocals. There's also the witty, pressing, and dissonant "iPhone", whose blunt central call for action—"Put your fucking iPhone down / And listen to me"—is far from a pioneering social commentary. Yet, the piece is a targeted disgruntlement as only Sparks could deliver. In contrast, "The Existential Threat" is quick and quirky from start to finish, as if you're stuck in the middle of a theatrical alien celebration.

Where A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip ranks alongside is nearly two dozen predecessors is anyone's guess. Still, there's no doubt that it's another wildly thought-provoking, fun, and wholly distinctive venture. Remarkably—and contrary to most artists who've been around this long—neither brother seems to have lost much, if any, of their original specialties and capabilities. Rather, Russell sounds virtually identical to how he did in the 1970s, and Ron is still coming up with wonderfully proficient yet madcap instrumentation and diversions. Thus, it's as clear as ever that even if the duo weren't bonded by blood, they'd be made for each other.

8
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