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By Michael Henningsen

FEBRUARY 15, 1999: 

April March Chrominance Decoder (Ideal)

Several years ago, New York-born animator Elinor Blake, formerly one-third of the great late-'80s girl group pastiche the Pussywillows, transformed into French-pop songstress April March. Taking her cues from '60s icons like the great France Gall and Francoise Hardy, March released a slew of singles, EPs and albums on a variety of tiny labels (including a killer pair of collaborations with garage-rockers The Makers, a pairing that sounds odd in theory but worked beautifully in practice), all of them setting her helium-filled bilingual coo to a variety of sympathetic, melodic settings. In the process, she became one of the best singer-songwriters you've never heard of.

With French pop on deck for Next Big Thing status, March's latest could be just the thing to attract her to a wider audience. In fact, the album's synthetic opening tracks, "Knee Socks" and "Sugar," which sound like Pizzicato 5 gone trip-hop, feel contrived to do just that. After that slightly gauche start, March settles into the place where she's most comfortable, sounding like a Francophone Petula Clark on "Garcon Glacon" and hitting her full Serge Gainsbourg-inspired stride on the brilliant "Mignonette." March shines from there on, bouncing from Bacharach-meets-Stereolab (the title track) to inspired daffiness (the ultra-bouncy "Garden of April") to Jeanne Moreauesque acoustic balladry ("Mickey et Chantal") and back without sticking in any one place too long. Chrominance Decoder sparkles and charms like Paris in the spring, as does la chanteuse petite her own bad self. The second you listen to this album, winter will officially be over. ¡¡¡¡ 1/2

Sparks Whomp That Sucker, Angst in My Pants, Sparks in Outer Space, Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat, Music That You Can Dance To (Oglio)

Former childhood models Ron and Russell Mael have never stayed put long, leaving their career a convoluted map of geographic and stylistic exploration. For two excellent early '70s albums, they were bizarre, artsy rockers. Then in 1973, the brothers moved to the UK and became glammy power pop teenybopper stars for a string of three classic releases. In 1978, they travelled to Germany to make a pair of forward-looking synth-dance records with disco producer Giorgio Moroder.

By 1981, Ron and Russell settled back home in L.A. and hooked up with local new wavers Gleaming Spires ('80s fanatics might remember their cult fave "Are You Ready for the Sex Girls?"), who became singer Russell and keyboardist Ron's fourth edition of Sparks for a series of albums that combined all previous incarnations into a new sound that remains utterly unique.

Russell's unforgettable falsetto-spiked vocals combined with Ron's impossibly wordy lyrics and the band's assured mix of new wave flash, pop smarts and rock muscle to create two near-perfect albums, 1981's Whomp That Sucker and 1982's Angst in My Pants. Subjects were bizarre ("Tips for Teens," "Sextown USA," "Instant Weight Loss") but never merely jokey. Synthesizers and guitars shared equal prominence, unusual at the time, and bassist Leslie Bohem (now a hot Hollywood screenwriter) and drummer David Kendricks were equally adept at dance grooves and thumping rockers, like the supremely weird "Eaten by the Monster of Love." These albums sound as exciting today as they did almost 20 years ago.

The unfortunately slick-sounding Sparks in Outer Space featured two duets with Jane Wiedlin (including Sparks' biggest-ever hit, "Cool Places"). But while the deadpan "Dance Godammit" and several others score, a few songs sound like leftovers. Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat feels like a holding pattern, with the fabulous "Pretending to Be Drunk" towering over many good but somewhat overfamiliar soundalikes. The Maels' last album with Gleaming Spires, 1985's Music That You Can Dance To, sounded great; some arrangements and performances equal this lineup's first efforts. Sadly, the lyrics are as uninspired as the title.

These reissues, with excellent sound but a disappointing lack of liner notes or bonus tracks, are more than welcome for old Sparks fans and the uninitiated alike.

Whomp That Sucker ¡¡¡¡¡
Angst In My Pants ¡¡¡¡¡
Sparks In Outer Space ¡¡¡ 1/2
Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat ¡¡¡¡ 1/2
Music That You Can Dance To ¡¡¡

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