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When Ron and Russell Mael were growing up, their parents probably told them they were too clever for their own good on a regular basis. But the joke's on Mom and Dad, since the Mael brothers have managed to build a lasting career out of being the smarty-pantses behind Sparks, who've been doing their very particular thing since 1970 with no sign of stopping. Released in 2017, Hippopotamus isn't an especially groundbreaking release for Sparks, but it's a more than solid effort that shows they haven't lost a bit of their smarts or their snarky way with a melody, an especially impressive achievement when you consider Russell was 68 and Ron was 72 when this album was released. This hardly sounds like the work of senior citizens, while it also sounds like Sparks and nobody else; Russell's gloriously pompous vocals are as theatrical as ever, and his instrument is in fine shape, while Ron's keyboards dominate the arrangements, carrying the melodies that combine pop hooks with prog-like bombast (though despite their arty side, this band is still incapable of keeping a straight face for long). Hippopotamus sounds contemporary without straining to appear up-to-date (despite the derisive Taylor Swift reference), at least to the extent that Sparks are as cheerfully out of place now as they've ever been, and the craft here is essentially flawless. And lyrically, Ron and Russell are still the Oscar Wildes of idiosyncratic pop, tossing out an endless series of bon mots about the mechanics of sex, people who tragically love the color brown, deities who hate being bothered with trivial requests, the pros and cons of giddiness, the behavior of French filmmakers, and how that hippo got into their swimming pool. If you've never liked Sparks, Hippopotamus isn't likely to convince you otherwise, but as a band that seems perversely proud of being an acquired taste, this album shows Sparks are still in fine fettle, and this should delight their loyal fan base.

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