Ambiguous & Vaguely Sinister
Back when I was a scrawny teenager on Long Island, I found a second home at the local record shop. After school I’d look through the racks, where the albums were alphabetized, scanning each cover intently before going to the next. In those halcyon pre-internet days, the only way to hear new music was to listen to the radio—in my case, WNEW-FM from New York City, not too far away. Going through the albums I’d spot some familiar names & consider purchases. Albums were not expensive then; most sold for around $2.89, but my job paid only $1.46½ an hour, before taxes, 15 cents below minimum, so you’d have to work close to three hours to buy a record. Every now & then, an album cover would catch my eye. Something about it—the look of the personnel, the artwork, the name of the band—would tease & tickle my imagination. Then I’d check back every day for a week or two. If I could still hear the album calling to me, I’d buy. Sometimes, though, my interest would fade.
One album cover forcibly captured my attention. The picture showed five guys in the their 20s, a little bit scruffy, gazing through the windows of a luxury sedan at a clean, smiling, fashionably dressed woman ensconced in the rear seat. Their facial expressions ranged from apathy to mild curiosity. Like, what sort of creature were they looking at? Written in cursive in an octagonal box on the cover was the single word, “Halfnelson,” which I took to be the name of the band as well as the name of the album. I knew that a half-nelson was a wrestling hold. On the back cover was another photo of these five guys staring at the camera w/ expressions of apathy, ambivalence, & mild suspicion.
After several visits to the record shop, I was convinced that I had to hear this music & I had to own this album. I had never heard the music, not on WNEW-FM or anywhere else. None of my friends had ever heard of this band, Halfnelson. Anyway, I bought the record, brought it home, & put it spinning on the turntable. What I heard was a revelation.
The album consists of eleven songs, each roughly three to four minutes in length. The songs are eccentric, quirky, suggestive, & saturated w/ a kind of ambiguous & vaguely sinister sexuality. Listening to the record (which I did over & over & over), I figured that the band was from a seedy & forgotten neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, but it turns out they were from Los Angeles. Let’s meet the band.
Lead singer w/ his remarkable falsetto is the androgynous & weirdly stylish Russell Mael. Russell’s brother, Ron Mael, writes most of the songs, plays organ & piano, wears shades, & his mustache is the only facial hair of the group. On lead guitar we have Earle Mankey & his raggedy dirty-blond shag haircut. Earle’s brother Jim Mankey plays bass & guitar. Harley Feinstein is a powerhouse on drums.
It’s not exactly easy to describe the songs of Halfnelson. Instead, why don’t I tell you what they are NOT. The songs are not disco. Not jazz. Not blues. Not country. Not soul. Not glam. Not Hawaiian. Not chord-bashing hard rock. Not metal. Not black metal. Not speed metal. Not punk. Not emo. Not trance, house, rap, classical, Dixieland, synth, polka, or K-Pop. It just sounds like five guys got together in a basement w/ rudimentary skills on their inexpensive instruments & played darkly oblique songs that meant a lot to them. Oh, & don’t forget the humor, which turns up pretty frequently. I won’t go over the individual songs, as each contains its own brand of weirdness. But this isn’t John Cage-style weirdness. Some of these songs are actually catchy.
For reasons that are unclear, Halfnelson changed its name to Sparks & re-released their Halfnelson album under the band name Sparks. After a second unorthodox album, “A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing,” the band broke up, w/ the two Mael brothers heading to the UK where they became hugely popular, keeping the name Sparks, & eventually developing into an international smash in places like France, Germany, Australia, as well as the UK. In fact, right now, I hear that, like Godzilla, Sparks is big in Japan.