Sparks Deliver 26th Album ‘The Girl is Crying in Her Latte’

Ron and Russell Mael revolted against the folk and Beach Boys-drenched California of the 1960s. Drawn instead to the British Invasion of The Kinks, The Who, and The Move, the brothers, then students at UCLA, began crafting their own sound by the mid-’60s, leaning heavily on their anglophile ways.

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After catching the attention of Todd Rundgren, who would produce their 1971 self-titled debut, and renaming themselves from Halfnelson to Sparks — a nod to the Marx Brothers — traces of their sound began igniting around the artier psychedelic pop of “Wonder Girl” and its follow-up, A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing. The latter pushed them to relocate to the U.K. before their breakthrough Kimono My House and No. 2 hit “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us,” and on through the more synth renderings with Giorgio Moroder.

The Maels’ continuous streams of curiosity and experimentation over the decades, and a recent upsurge in notoriety following the 2021 Edgar Wright documentary, The Sparks Brothers, along with the brothers’ award-winning score of the French film Annette, segued into the introspective and satirical storylines of their 26th album The Girl is Crying in Her Latte.

A follow-up to the duo’s 2020 release, A Steady Drip Drip Drip, the album includes a series of stories hidden within the initial story, from the electrode fuzz of the title track, which was accompanied by a music video featuring a lemon-suited Cate Blanchett, backed by Ron and Russell, gyrating in place.

“It’s stretching the meaning of the solitude, and the melancholy of the times, but trying to find lyrical ways to say that more obliquely than just speaking about situations,” Ron tells American Songwriter of the title track. “We try to be kind of oblique, sometimes.”

Following one story about a “girl,” Sparks pay homage to another actor from the Golden Age of cinema with “Veronica Lake,” and her influence over wartime women. “She wasn’t considered the best actress, but there was something about her that nobody else had,” says Ron of the 1940s starlet of Sullivan’s Travels. “She just had a small window where she was the biggest actress, but it was a very short amount of time, and she had a tragic life towards the end of her life. This song is about the period when she was the idol of so many women in America, during World War II, while a lot of women were working in factories.”

Further into their 14 vignettes are stories of adventure, escape, and more universal tribulations. “The Mona Lisa’s Packing, Leaving Late Tonight,” ruminates on a sense of escapism. All the world is agitated, ill at ease / But she always felt she’d rise above all maladies / But it’s now become impossible for her to smile / So she’s going to take her credit card and rack up miles.

More baroque orchestration leads “Take Me For A Ride” and the story of a hitchhiker running from the law in a Chevy Powerglide. Dotted throughout the album are some sweetened short stories from the computerized chimes of passing love on “Escalator.” One fleeting glance / There ain’t no chance / To ask her to dance.

Before closing on the more introspective “Gee, That Was Fun,” and all its regretful wishes —Wish I had more dumb photographs / Wish I’d recorded all your laughs / Wish I had kept your Christmas cards — the penultimate “It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way” forges deeper. They always said that you need to have a plan / Doesn’t matter, any plan / Any plan they’ll understand / It doesn’t have to be that way. 

“It’s a difficult balance lyrically for that song because it was trying to make a statement — and we don’t really like making statements,” shares Ron. “In this case, it’s saying that if you’re working outside of the normal lines of pop music you have to accept any sort of non-acceptance sometimes, or misunderstanding of what you’re doing. So it was trying to put that idea into musical terms.”

Russell adds, “It can also be extrapolated to be whatever somebody’s situation is: it doesn’t have to be that way. You can moan as much as you want to moan about something, but oftentimes you can also be the one to change how things are.”

All things have changed in the world for Sparks within the past two years, along with a newfound awareness of the Maels’ nearly 60-year career, following the release of Wright’s documentary. In 2021, the brothers also won a César Award for Best Original Music and the Cannes Soundtrack Award for Best Composer for their work as screenwriters and composers of the Leos Carax-helmed romantic drama, Annette, starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard.

The documentary and ‘Annette’ both brought in new people to the Sparks fold that maybe, for whatever reason, had no knowledge of the band,” says Russell on the impact of the past several years on the band. “He [Wright] did an amazing job of encapsulating our whole career and an emotional side to the story that was something we didn’t expect. That film, and our own musical, just brought in a new audience, so we felt extra pressure to come up with new material. We wanted to give something that was as forward-thinking as anything we’ve done.”

Now, they’ve set their sites on their next cinematic undertaking, X-Crucior. Meaning estranged in Latin, X-Crucior is an “epic” production, according to Russell, who along with Ron, has completed the screenplay and composed all the music for the film.

“That’s where we kind of see it as ourselves — whatever that elicits — and there’s a lot of different ways of being epic,” says Russell. “We really enjoy working on movie musicals more than scoring things, because it’s figuring out ways to use a person’s voice in a musical context, and tell a story. We’ve avoided scoring films and working at the service of a director’s vision. I guess we’re kind of arrogant that way.”

Nearly 50 years since their breakthrough release, time is still a commodity for the brothers, with Ron, now 77 and Russell, 74. 

“We’re not lazy,” says Russell. “There are fans of Sparks and then there are people who are yet to be fans of Sparks. We want to lure them into our camp, and the only way to do that is to come up with material that is provocative in some kind of way.”

He continues, “We approach each album like that. We don’t discuss it in those kind of terms, but we know that we have to do stuff that’s atypical for a band with a long career. We still want to engage the people that have followed Sparks for so long, but we also want to engage new listeners as well.”

Still in their juxtaposed states, with Ron’s stoic demeanor against Russell’s more erratic nature, Sparks remain a timeless musical entity.

“Despite our chronological ages, I don’t think we come across as people of another era for whatever reason,” says Russell. “I think our spirit and the spirit of our music, and the spirit of our personalities and the spirit of our artwork, our album covers and our videos, don’t read as being from people that are tired and from another generation. I think that they read as something that speaks to people now.”

Of course, there’s reverence for Sparks’ earlier days in the U.K. and their pinnacle in pop in the 1970s, from performing on Top of the Pops, and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, but Russell insists their longevity is a byproduct of never resting on those bygone laurels. 

“We loved all that, but don’t dwell on that as being the ‘that was it,'” he says. “It’s hard to not give up things like that, but the reason that we have longevity, and we’re still doing stuff that’s as exciting as that period is because we cap those things and cherish them, but we’re also cherishing our situation now, in 2023. We have allies like Edgar Wright and the ‘Annette’ movie, and those become the new past. Those become the new memories.”

Photos: Munachi Osegbu / Courtesy of Big Hassle Media

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