(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #73 – released November 26, 2002)
Track listing: The Rhythm Thief / How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall? / What Are All These Bands So Angry About? / I Married Myself / Ride ‘Em Cowboy / My Baby’s Taking Me Home / Your Call’s Very Important To Us, Please Hold / Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls / Suburban Homeboy
It’s just a little ironic that a good chunk of pop music is… not very popular. So many artists make significant contributions to the form but never become household names. Some burn out quickly, their achievements forever etched in amber via studio output and whatever videos or scraps of live footage surface on YouTube; others retain a cult following that sustains them either monetarily or creatively (or, if they’re really lucky, both.)
Sparks is for sure a cult band (they’ve never had a top 40 US hit), but also something of an anomaly. Although originally formed as a California-based quintet, Sparks is, at its core and for nearly five decades at this writing, a duo consisting of brothers Russell and Ron Mael. A visually striking study in opposites, curly-haired, baby-faced Russell sings in a theatrical, near-operatic trill, while Ron, who writes most of the lyrics, usually sits solemnly behind his keyboard, looking somewhat peeved (his tiny, Hitler-esque mustache not helping matters.)
Since their 1971 debut album, they’ve dabbled in expatriate British glam-pop, near straight-faced AOR, Giorgio Moroder-produced electronic disco, jittery new wave and good old fashioned synth-pop. Arguably, such genre hopping kept them from ever courting a Queen, Donna Summer or Erasure-size following, and yet, on multiple occasions, their version of pop briefly aligned with some part of the world’s—their mid-70s run on the top of the charts (led off by “This Town Isn’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us”, surely the strangest song to ever hit #2 in the UK outside of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”), that time they spent weeks at number one in France (1980’s “When I’m With You”), their early-MTV minor hits (“I Predict”, “Cool Places” with Jane Wiedlin (of The Go-Go’s)—likely the only two Sparks songs most Americans have heard.)
Despite so many stylistic shifts, they’ve developed and maintained a clear sensibility, thanks to two constants: Russell’s inimitable, fey vocals and a singular, somewhat snarky wit. They’ve written memorable tunes about sexually inexperienced young men (“Amateur Hour”) and freshly minted media moguls (“Now That I Own The BBC”), not to mention a fist-pumping dance anthem sung from the point of view of, um, sperm (“Tryouts For The Human Race”). Their back catalog is also packed to the gills with song titles like “Angst in My Pants”, “Academy Award Performance”, “Barbecutie”, “Dick Around” and “Lighten Up, Morrissey”.
After fleeting success all over Europe in 1994 with “When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way’” (from the album Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins), the Maels fell into one of their periodic career slumps, resorting to recording new versions of their greatest hits (1997’s Plagiarism) and releasing an album only notable for its title (2000’s Balls). Essentially little more than mischievous, hetero Pet Shop Boys at this point, expectations for their next album were nonexistent. Although it didn’t really revive their career commercially, it ended up marking another major stylistic shift for Sparks and it was also something of a game-changer.
For this, their 19th (!) album, Sparks took the operatic, theatrical bent always lurking in their sound and shamelessly brought it to the fore. As the title somewhat implies, the bulk of Lil’ Beethoven sounds nothing at all like rock n’ roll, almost entirely eschewing guitars/bass/drums for mostly synthesized orchestration and overdubbed vocal chorales—a light (and occasionally, not-so-light) classical take on pop music that’s agreeably catchy and melodic but doesn’t have much of a precedent. It’s as if the Maels, tired of trying to replicate their past, fleeting pop successes finally said, “Fuck it” and made exactly the album they wanted to, not giving a damn regarding radio airplay or genre categorization. Of course, one could argue they’ve done this throughout their oeuvre, but here is where they draw that definitive line in the sand, and sound all the more freer for doing so.
Lil’ Beethoven, however, is not a challenging listen due to its aural break from contemporary pop music—the biggest hurdle most listeners may encounter is its extensive use of repetition. All nine tracks are built around phrases that reoccur until they turn into hooks, which of course is something most pop music does, from “Barbara Ann” to “Get Lucky”. And yet, the Maels take this practice to an extreme—most notably on “My Baby’s Taking Me Home”, which, apart from a brief spoken word section, repeats its title like a skipping record over one hundred times. It sounds boring on paper, but Sparks fully comprehend the golden rule of repetition: say something once and it’s funny or at least notable; say it a second or third time, and it’s somewhat redundant, but if you keep saying it over and over, it has the potential to become funny again—maybe even profound. Thus, as Russell belts out the title, near the tenth or fifteenth time, you start to notice various countermelodies in the instrumental backing, particularly in the piano. Even as the title and melody repeats itself ad infinitum, shifts in volume and density allow the song’s momentum to build, then decrease, then settle, then build again until it reaches a commanding peak in the final minute as an actual backbeat kicks in and the whole thing swells with the force of a Hallelujah Chorus.
Similarly, opener “The Rhythm Thief” is assembled out of various phrases (“Oh, no, where did the groove go?”, “You’ll never get it back”) and melodies that echo and alternate to create enough tension to go along with the staccato strings driving the arrangement. “How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall?” is an incessant call-and-response between the titular question and its joke answer (“Practice, man, practice!”) as rapid, repeated piano triplets conjure up images of a poor dope fervently attempting to perfect an arpeggio over and over until his fingers are left bloody and blistered. “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” may opt for a more traditional verse-and-chorus structure, but the former’s four-syllable phrases serve exactly the same purpose as the latter’s back-and-forth between the dramatically sung title and a rather twangy “Get back on a-gainnn.” “Your Call Is Very Important To Us, Please Hold” plays like a Dadaist collage, cutting up Russell’s recitation of the title’s seven words with a proto-Siri voice mechanically intoning the last two (along with other layered phrases such as “Red, red light / green / light.”)
Occasionally, Sparks ekes genuine pathos out of this approach. “I Married Myself” paints an absurd picture by following its title with the words, “I’m very happy together,” but does so to a swooning melody sweet enough for a Hollywood movie theme. Little “dit-dit-dit” vocals and strings of deliberate clichés (“Long, long walks / on the beach / lovely times”) sit side by side with erudite electric piano and classy muted trumpet flashes. Meanwhile, Russell sings, “This time it’s gonna last / forever, forever, forever,” with a wistfulness that feels utterly sincere, even as you’re trying to reconcile it with all the surrounding, surreal imagery.
Rest assured the Maels haven’t entirely gone soft. “What Are All These Bands So Angry About?” succinctly takes down the then-ubiquitous likes of Limp Bizkit (and possibly Eminem.) Russell talks/sings the title in an affected sneer as Ron toughens up the mix with some electronic clutter. Naturally, the song’s cereal commercial-ready piano hook immediately deflates any hint of menace. Arguably, they save it all for the penultimate track, “Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls”. After a genteel intro of a piece with everything preceding it on the album, Sparks gleefully upend expectations at the 0:43 mark when Russell suddenly yells, “WHAT? WHAT? WHAT? WHAT?” and screams the song’s title over a raucous guitar riff. Then, we get a lengthy soliloquy detailing the strange but time-honored phenomenon of how money often trumps looks, smarts, talent, etc. “It ain’t done with smoke and mirrors,” he seethes, cathartically laying bare the tension and frustration that had been burbling under the album’s light classical sheen all along. Or, in other words, revealing exactly what he and Ron are angry about.
Still, Sparks have always sheathed their anger in an impeccable wit, and that very device informs and uplifts Lil’ Beethoven’s closing number. “Suburban Homeboy” is an alternate-world Gilbert and Sullivan showstopper about, simply put, white men who act like they’re black. By far the most songful tune on the album, it’s rich with wordplay (“I’ll pop a cap up some fool at The Gap,” “She ‘yo yo’s’ me and I ‘yo yo’ her back”) and clever rhymes (“My caddy and me / he looks just like Jay-Z” and also “I / bought my cornrows on Amazon / I / started listening to Farrakhan”.) However, the Maels really sell it by effortlessly bending such a satirical character sketch to an ultra-specific spine of a type of song. Notice what impact a chorus of one hundred Russells has in the final verse delivering a lyric as absurd as, “We are suburban homeboys and we say ‘Yo, dog!’ and we mean it, by God!” Like the rest of Lil’ Beethoven, it’s equally ridiculous and sublime, only more so.
In the decade-plus since this record, the Maels have put out five more albums (don’t be surprised if the latest, Hippopotamus ends up on my best-of list this year), including a collaboration with Scots new wave-revivalists Franz Ferdinand (as FFS) and a ballet soundtrack about Ingmar Bergman; they’ve also recently worked with such kindred spirit filmmakers as Guy Maddin (“The Final Derriere” for his film The Forbidden Room) and Leos Carax (whom they are currently writing a screenplay with.) One suspects they’ll keep at it until either of them croaks, which is perfectly fine—most bands, cult or otherwise should remain so creatively solvent twenty-plus albums in.
Up next: Greetings from Tucson.
“I Married Myself”: