I have to acknowledge the musical “elephant in the room” (or is that expression “hippo in the room”?) in that one of the longest lasting and most unique sounding bands continues to produce substantial music without compromise nearly 50 years along. I’m talking about Sparks, more specifically the Mael brothers; Ron and Russell. I can’t think of any other musical artist short of Todd Rundgren who deftly avoids commercial success, yet keeps its cult fan base on the edge of its seat over the course of decades. It makes sense that Rundgren helped get them started too, signing them to his Bearsville label and produced their self-titled 1971 debut. Early on, Sparks was compared favorably with 10cc, but with even more artistic integrity. I would encourage the uninitiated to explore the vast back catalog which I consider experimental power pop until the band’s shift to electronic disco on 1979’s No.1 in Heaven, which is considered the band’s commercial breakthrough in the US.
But I digress, as Hippopotamus the band’s 23rd album retains Ron Mael’s sharp wit, and Russel’s iconic vocals as best displayed early on for “Missionary Position.” The meta-melodramatic “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)” is a great example of Sparks musical auteurism. And like most Sparks work, some tunes are perfectly accessible (“Unaware”) and others border on annoying (“Giddy Giddy”). The title track is a surrealist nursery rhyme, and another highlight is the light and wobbly “I Wish You Were Fun.”
Even when the subject gets somber, like on “Bummer” about a funeral service or “Life with the Macbeths” the impressive operatic musical composition showcases the brothers’ knack for brilliance. When I was done, I felt compelled to revisit the early period work and marvel at how ahead of its time it was and how it holds up even today. Highly Recommended.