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Propaganda
Sparks

Island ILPS 9312
Released: January 1975
Chart Peak: #63
Weeks Charted: 13

Russell MaelRon MaelOn their now obscure Warner Bros.' albums Sparks's intriguing lyrics and immaculate conceptions were undermined by inadequate musical constructions. But since they moved to England and Island in early 1974, they've gained a rock-hard foundation that's improved matters immensely, while the songwriting of Ron and Russell Mael (the creative Sparks) has improved apace. In some ways Sparks seems one of the most fascinating bands of the Seventies, in other ways they're a difficult listening experience.

Sparks is endlessly clever and seems intent on giving that cleverness free rein on every track. The effects are disconcerting -- an exciting hard-rock burst followed by a ponderous pseudoclassical passage and a spot of vaudeville -- until chaos reigns. On "BC" the musical fragments bounce around like ricocheting ball bearings. If you're in an appreciative mood, Sparks can be quite diverting; other times they can drive you up their wall of sound.

Sparks's prime irritant is Russell Mael's lead vocals. He employs an affected falsetto with mixed results. It transforms English words into unfathomable alien syllables. In its higher registers it sounds so irritatingly fey as to render a song like "Something for the Girl with Everything" completely unlistenable.

Sparks has great potential and its compression of art-rock influences into tight, breezy, four-minute songs may eventually bridge the commercial-AM/ progressive-FM chasm. Both their positive and negative attributes seem ingrained in their basic approach, however, so it's likely some listeners will love them, some will hate them and large numbers will remain... ambivalent.

- Ken Barnes, Rolling Stone, 4/24/75.

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I thought Sparks' last album was a witty, enjoyable prank. I still think so, though I now wonder whether one reason I liked it so much was because I was hearing the group for the first time. This current album mostly reflects what will probably be written on the gravestone of rock-and-roll when a consensus is reached on its death: "Here lies more of the same." There are some occasionally funny moments, such as "Ah-choo," the best number here, which closes with what sounds like the soprano section of the London Young Charwomen's Choir attempting to sneeze and sing a madrigal at the same time. But most of the record is given over to echo-chamber gimmickry with rat-a-tat, box-square instrumental patterns designed to say: "THIS IS SATIRE: KINDLY REALIZE HOW CLEVER WE ARE."

The defect of Sparks' music -- the same joke can be told only once -- is largely compensated for, I would guess, by their stage act. My spies report that an evening spent watching the Mael Brothers, who are at the core of the band, is rewarding. An hour spent listening to this album is somewhat less gratifying.

- Joel Vance, Stereo Review, 6/75.

One of Britain's hottest bands, headed by the American Mael brothers, is a fast paced, lyrically looney journey which should please the band's already strong following here and add a lot more to the flock. The group began several years back by emulating the British sound, and have captured it so well they are now a part of it. Not what one would call commercial at first listen, but there is an infectiousness that takes hold. Musically complicated with some interesting changes, the LP is guaranteed for FM action and a hit single is more likely than from previous efforts. Best cuts: "At Home, At Work, At Play," "BC," "Don't Leave Me Alone With Her," "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth," "Something For The Girl With Everything."

- Billboard, 1975.

Admirers of these self-made twerps certainly don't refer to them as pop because they get on the AM -- for once the programmers are doing their job. So is it because they sing in a high register? Or because a good beat makes them even more uncomfortable than other accoutrements of a well-lived life? "Never turn your back on mother earth," they chant or gibber in a style unnatural enough to end your current relationship or kill your cacti, and I must be a natural man after all, because I can't endure the contradiction. C-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

More of Ron's Mael's wit ("Don't Leave Me Alone with Her," "Who Don't Like Kids") and Russell Mael's operatic singing with catchy rock backings, though it's hard to get the jokes without the lyric sheet. * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

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