Russell Mael - vocals & bass guitar Ron Mael - keyboards Earle Mankey - guitar (and lead vocals on Big Rock Candy Mountain) John Mendelsohn - drums Surly Ralph Oswald - bass guitar on some tracks Mike Berns - drums on some tracks Tracks: Chile Farm Farney Johnny's Adventure Roger Arts & Crafts Spectacular Landlady The Animals At Jason's Bar & Grill Big Rock Candy Mountain Millie Saccharin And The War Join The Firm Jane Church The Factory
Ever since I got involved in Sparks, somewhere in the second half of 1974, I have been fascinated by their very first American period. I'm not referring to the early 80's, during which Sparks were moderately successful in the States, with songs like "I Predict" and "Cool Places", but I'm talking about the time that the Maels' first cautious steps were made into the music industry.
Nevertheless, the thought of an unknown album, somewhere in America never lost its grip on me and I decided to make it my personal Quest for the Holy Grail of Mael to find this album and to be able to listen to it. It would take me 22 years before this Quest was actually fulfilled.
Next to Ron and Russell, Urban Renewal Project consisted of Ron's friend Fred Frank on guitar and his wife Ronda on drums, being it only one snare drum. Here's a fragment from Ron and Russell's mother, Miriam Rogenson, who was living in England in those days. She's writing to a relative in the US about Russell visiting England and France, the members of the band and the name-change to Half-Nelson (sic).
"Russell is here for a month - returning January 12. He's in France now visiting a friend. He's here with a young married couple - the fellow is in Russell's band - Half-Nelson is their name. Ronnie stayed home as he had an art exhibit of some of his photographiic artwork. Also a contract for a record was pending."
Two things are interesting here. First of all, she is talking about Russell's band, not Ron and Russell's band, which confirms the fact that in the earlier days, they were not active within the same band and Ron was more occupied with his photography. There's the mentioning of a possible record contract, which means that the young married couple must have been Earle and his wife Lisa. The contract mentioned was the one for Bearsville, which would release the official Halfnelson album and the subsequent "A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing".
Sounds, October 17, 1970
The album opens with a very cheerful song in which Ron's piano playing is very much like he'd later do on the Island albums and which turned out to be such a distinctive feature on Sparks songs. Russell's (?) bass lines are very much present as Earle's guitar's clearly there. The keyboard does not sound as an organ in this song, where it does in most other tracks of the album. The voice of Russell is very recognisable and any fan would immediately pick out this song as typically Sparks. If there should be made a comparison to another era, I would have to say that this song probably sounds the most like what Sparks would do during their Island years.
This song I instantly liked very much. It starts off with Ron's organ only, after which Russell joins in. For about 10 seconds, it's only Ron's organ and Russell's voice. A heavy bass line and a clearly speed-up guitar are added, the latter also appearing later in the song as a solo instrument. The song is built up by variations in tempo and ends in a cacophony of sounds with a prominent role for the guitar which sounds like a bomb exploding. The very last seconds of the song contain Russell's multiple serene voices slowly fading out. There are no drums on this song.
Roger is the first song that we all (at least most of us) should know. The version is not all that different from the later album version, although it is very easy to hear how Earle has played with his tape recorder to speed up his guitar to create funny sounds. The rhythm is, like on the official version, done by cymbals and the sounds of drum sticks on half-empty (or half-full, if you're that kind of person) bottles. The bass guitar is quite unnoticeable. With this original only being 2 seconds shorter than the official version, it is clear that Todd Rundgren did not change too much on this song. It kind of makes you wonder why they needed Rundgren in the
first place and whether he was just the name they needed rather than a producer as their own production doesn't differ that much from the ones apparently done later by Todd Rundgren.
Arts & Crafts Spectacular (2:33)
When I first heard this song and I didn't know the name of the tracks yet, I was convinced the title was "Lovely Claudine Jones". It wasn't. The first song of the album that actually contains drums, although I'm not so sure what kind of drums were used. The Maels later always claimed that they used
cardboard boxes for drum kits and I'm inclined to believe them after having heard this song. This song is an absolute gem and it includes Russell's multi-vocals in such a way that it almost makes this song mystical. Again, they change regularly from up-tempo to a more modest tempo, and Ron's organ is very prominent indeed.
Landlady starts off with a vocal cacophony in which probably even Ron Mael joined in. The whole song is very atmospheric and mystical and it somehow reminds me of something that could have been played at the house of the Adams Family. Sinister and fascinating at the same time, with beautiful guitar riffs from Earle and a heavy bass line. And there's always Ron's organ, very, very noticeable. Beautiful song.
If one song should be mentioned as being influenced by The Kinks, it's probably this one. Cheerful, up-tempo with very funny lyrics. Again, hardly any drums but a lot of harmony vocals, probably all by Russell. Fragmental guitar riffs by Earle and Ron using his keyboard as piano again, for a change. Very good.
Amazing song, this one. Didn't sound like Sparks at all at first, except for Russell's vocals. Reminded me very much of the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Mamas & Papas. The main instruments are actually Ron's keyboard and the bass line while it contains Russell's first attempt to match the sound of an opera singer, which he masters quite well. Modest applause has been included for that. One of my favourites.
Catchy, up-tempo tune but tends to get slightly boring after having heard it a number of times. This is probably also due to the fact that the recording is kind of shrill. The melody is lovely though and apart from all the regular instruments that were used for this album, I think I can hear marimbas as well. Not my favourite song from the album but I still feel priviliged I can listen to it now and then and it has grown on me during the years.
This version of the song which also appears on the Halfnelson album is much more laid back than the later recording. It has a funny guitar riff and the bass guitar is also more noticeable. Again, Todd, did not change all that much from the original version, except for speeding it up a little and making it sound a bit more professional. Liked the song when I heard the official version and still like it now. Don't ask me which version I'd prefer however, as I genuinely would not know.
Now this one really sounds a lot like some of the psychedelic Doors songs. Very prominent organ, heavy bass lines, some guitar riffs and a lot of multiple vocals. Mystical, atmospheric again. What the hell were they trying to prove? Great song though, one of my favourites. Hard to describe really, it should be listened to instead.
Ron really gets the chance to try out whether his piano lessons were any good to him. Although he's using the keyboard as an organ again, this was probably the most difficult song for him to play. Beautiful ensemble playing between him and Earle. This is a perfect example of how chaos and slight hysteria can be captured in a wonderful tune.
Despite its beautiful title, this song is hard to swallow and it's probably Sparks' (or Halfnelson, if you like) least accessible song ever recorded. The song seems to lack structure and if you hear it for the first time, you might consider it as just a bunch of noise.