I was wondering idly recently, "Who holds the title for most studio albums in my music collection?" The Beatles(11)? Rush(19)? Yes(10)? Queen(12)?.
The surprising answer, when I counted them all up, was Sparks, with 21, and a new one's just been released! (More on that in a bit.)
Sparks is essentially two brothers: Ron (keyboards) and Russell (vocals) Mael, originally from Los Angeles, who have added musicians as needed to create an album at an average rate of one every other year, for almost forty years!
What's really interesting is how these guys never quite sound the same from album to album, and somehow find a way to make each new style their own, and keep it interesting. The common thread among all their albums, though, is their Bob & Ray-style subtle sense of humor. And what's even cooler (and encouraging to me as the years roll by), is that they seem to be reaching ever higher creative peaks as they go.
Their first few albums in the early 70's were quirky but tuneful and catchy, always featuring Russell's soaring falsetto. Here's an example from 1974 (and proof that they could 'bring it' live)...
One could already see that though they sounded a bit glam, they never really took it very seriously, so when that movement died out suddenly in the mid-70's, Sparks were ready to move on. They touched on disco...
...and were ready for the MTV generation in the early 80's. They reached a peak of popular success when they teamed with The Go-Go's Jane Wiedlin for this song/video:
Sparks went through the inevitable musical doldrums in the late 80's and were largely forgotten by the mainstream pop buying public, including me. However, in 2000 I came across an Australian import release of Balls and after hearing the title track's lyrics...
You can wait for saviors
Meting out their favors
You can wait and wait
Hope may spring eternal
Sounds a bit maternal
Do you want to wait, or crash the gate
Balls. All you need are,
Balls. To succeed are
Balls. All you need are
...I was back on board the Sparks express.
Since then, quite gleefully contrary to advancing years and the law of entropy, they have continued to develop their sound, surprising my ears by integrating orchestra and choral embellishments, and adding performance-art videos to their live act, all the while deepening their weird and dry humor, which remains mysterious and at times just out of reach. Nice balancing act, that! They seem to know that when humor is too obvious, too easy to get, it loses its power.
A good example from recent years is "Dick Around," (2006), which plays on all their strengths: Striking musical shifts, lyrics that start out simple and silly and grow in complexity and emotion, and interesting visual imagery. And it really rocks out just past the one minute mark:
(Love those cats!)
I'm looking forward to the new album, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, their 22nd studio effort, an English/Swedish radio play, no less! (One blogger's review here.). I'm planning to order the double vinyl off their website. Paying top dollar from a band directly; that's the highest compliment I can give to their enduring art.