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Albums Of The Week: Sparks | Balls / Lil’ Beethoven / Hello Young Lovers Deluxe Editions

The magnificent Mael brothers unveil expanded reissues of three recent releases.

THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: Sparks are celebrating their post-millennial renaissance with the 21st Century Sparks Collection of deluxe reissues. Balls (2000), Lil’ Beethoven (2002), and Hello Young Lovers (2006) arrive today; Exotic Creatures Of The Deep (2008) and The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman (2009) follow on Friday, May 27. All five releases — a number of which have been out of print for years and are much sought after by collectors — have been specially remastered with an array of bonus material,  much of it previously unreleased.

Truly, there’s never been a better time to be a Sparks fan. Levels of interest in the work of Ron and Russell Mael are at a height unseen since their 1970s breakthrough. 2021’s acclaimed career-spanning documentary The Sparks Brothers, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz, Baby Driver), brought an awareness of Sparks to parts they previously hadn’t reached. Their 2021 film musical Annette, directed by Leos Carax and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, has been showered with awards, especially in France, where Carax won Best Director at Cannes, and where the film won three Lumières Awards and five César Awards, including Best Original Music for Ron and Russell. The ultimate cult band are suddenly center stage, in the full beam of the spotlight.

Most people with even a passing acquaintance with Sparks will know the basics by now. How Californian brothers Ron and Russell, both students at UCLA, began making music together in the late ’60s, originally under the name Halfnelson. How their Top Of The Pops debut with This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us stunned a generation and nearly scored them a U.K. No. 1. How their career moved through many phases, including (but not limited to) art rock, glam, big band swing, electro-disco, new wave, and synthpop, taking in collaborations with Todd Rundgren, Les Rita Mitsouko, Tony Visconti, Giorgio Moroder and Franz Ferdinand, to name but a few.

Photo by Philippe Mazzoni.

How keyboardist and songwriter Ron’s intricate staccato arrangements combine with the hysteria-pitch falsetto in which Russell delivers his brother’s always-on-point lyrics. How Ron’s stillness and stern, intimidating visage contrasts onstage with Russell’s hyperactivity. How their popularity has spiked unpredictably in different territories at different times: Britain, France, Germany, Scandinavia, Japan, and their homeland the United States. And how the influence of “the greatest band you’ve never heard of” or “your favorite band’s favorite band” has been recognized by successive generations of artists from Joy Division to Duran Duran to Depeche Mode to Björk to Beck to The Darkness and beyond.

If there’s a gap in the knowledge of Sparks newcomers or even long-term admirers, it might be the early 21st century, that crucial period in the 2000s between the “Crackerjack Years” of their first flushes of fame and their current success, when the duo rediscovered their muse and released some of their finest albums. The 21st Century Sparks Collection of deluxe reissues — as well as their more recent studio releases Hippopotamus (2017) and A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip (2020) — plot out the path of an extraordinary renaissance for the Mael brothers.

Now into their sixth decade of making music, Sparks have never been more relevant. The 21st Century Sparks Collection shows exactly how they got here.”