Sparks

Balls (Oglio Records)

The marvelously twisted Mael brothers, known in pop circles as Sparks for the past 30 years or so, are living proof of the adage that if you stick around long enough, eventually you'll be back in style. Sparks began life as a slightly more than standard power-pop band, with Russell Mael's flamboyant frontman antics and stratospheric Bryan Ferry-on-helium vocals and Ron Mael's discreet mugging behind the keyboards, all in the service of innocuous songs that guitared-and-bassed along at breakneck speed. Finding little audience here, they relocated to England, where they had a couple of hits in the mid-'70s and finally established something of a cult following.

When the Maels' career stalled in the latter half of the decade, the brothers fired the band and set up shop with disco impresario Giorgio Moroder. Sparks has never been far from the dance floor since then, although there have been occasional returns to style, particularly on 1995's strong comeback, Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins, which was a wonderful blend of everything that the Maels have done well since the beginning. Their new label, Oglio, has done a nice job of reissuing the Sparks catalog, last year offering an entire disc's worth of club hits titled, appropriately enough, 12" Mixes.

Finally the Maels emerge with Balls, their first new album in the five years since Sax/Violins, and it's a cracker. With just a couple of minor tweaks, Sparks has become a decent techno band with great beats, simmering synths, appropriately crunchy guitar, and patented off-kilter lyrical concerns. The poppy throb of the title track and "Aeroflot" show just how effectively the Maels have incorporated their previous style shifts into their current sonic arsenal. The majestic "More Than a Sex Machine" moves into the gentle insistence of "Scheherazade" and "The Calm Before the Storm," all of which build to dramatic conclusions with bubbling pop precision. The clever and melancholy "How to Get Your Ass Kicked" is an uncharacteristic lull in Balls but not an unwelcome one, as it demonstrates the notching down of the band's manic goofiness in favor of a more discernible sense of fun and humor. It's only right that Sparks should make a comeback now: They were giddy pop geeks before Devo, pounding synth mixers before Moby, and beat-heavy cartoons way before the Beastie Boys. Everybody got their Sparks from somewhere.

 
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