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Some people say Sparks didn’t find their stride until WOOFER, but I think they hit the ground running full speed. When you think about it, seminal bands that actually start out firing all cylinders is a rare thing. Usually it takes two or three albums for a band to hit their sweet spot. Not so for Sparks. -Ian!

Within the first track of their debut album — the crisp, minimal pounder “Wonder Girl,” featuring Russell Mael’s falsetto already engaged in swooping acrobatics and Ron Mael’s sparkling piano work to the fore, singing ever-so-slightly-weird lyrics about love that couldn’t quite be taken at face value — Sparks established themselves so perfectly that arguably the rest of the brothers’ long career has been a continual refinement from that basic formula. Even more striking is realizing how astoundingly prescient it was; what must have sounded indescribably strange in 1972 now feels like the precursor to nearly all of new wave, a fair chunk of synth-pop, and just about any music with a brain. As it stands, the original Sparks group, with brothers Jim and Earle Mankey on bass and guitar and Harvey Feinstein on drums accompanying the Maels, was as tight and accomplished as the classic Alice Cooper lineup, but given to their own brand of clever insanity (the fact that there’s a loud-rocking original on here called “(No More) Mr. Nice Guys” makes you wonder if that other band wasn’t listening in). Todd Rundgren’s production is generally spare but very effective, with snippets of cymbal and keyboard leaping out from the speakers at odd moments. The twisted, ’50s piano-rock loper “High C” practically invents Queen in both shuffling rock-out and heavy rockabilly camp phases; “Fletcher Honorama” slides and slinks along in a wickedly dreamy way; and “Slowboat” combines show tunes, cabaret, and rock to magnificent effect. With other songs like “Biology 2,” “Fa La Fa Lee,” and the brilliantly titled “Saccaharin and the War,” Sparks remains a wonderfully entertaining listen and an honestly unique debut.

Woofer… starts with another killer opening track, musically and lyrically, with “Girl From Germany,” a chugging number detailing the problems the narrator has with his parents over his girlfriend, given their lingering wartime attitudes. The album builds upon the strengths of the debut to create an even better experience all around. The same five-person lineup offers more sharp performances. Album engineering veteran James Lowe takes over production reins from Rundgren, with, happily, no audible sense of trying to make the album more commercial. If anything, things are even wiggier this time around, from the naughtily-titled sea chanty which turns into a full-on rocker “Beaver O’Lindy” and the strings-plus-piano “Here Comes Bob,” to the album’s completely wacked-out, dramatic centerpiece “Moon Over Kentucky.” Melodies start approaching the hyperactivity level which would flower completely on the band’s subsequent releases. Ron and Earle Mankey trade off or play against each other, while the rhythm section of Jim Mankey and Feinstein executes the kind of sharp tempo changes which would become de rigueur for thrash-metal bands of the ’80s, but fit in perfectly here with the spastic pop being played. Russell soars and croons over it all like an angel on deeply disturbing drugs, wrapping his vocals around such lines as “We surely will appreciate our newfound leisure time” from “Nothing is Sacred.” The long-time live favorite “Do-Re-Mi” — indeed a cover of the number from The Sound of Music — first appears here as well, taking Rodgers and Hammerstein to a level Julie Andrews might be hardpressed to follow. Anyone wondering why Faith No More appeared on Sparks’ self-tribute album Plagiarism need only listen to Woofer to understand — as a full-on purée of musical styles in the service of twisted viewpoints, it’s a perfect album.

-Ned Raggett,

Sparks-HALFNELSON (1972)


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