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Sparks - Lil' Beethoven CD (album) cover

LIL' BEETHOVEN

Sparks

 

Crossover Prog

4.34 | 21 ratings

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tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer
4 stars It's safe to say that nobody saw this coming, and with good reason. Sparks' emergence from the depths of 80s oblivion was a nice story, but the way it happened (with the band embracing contemporary techno) wasn't especially surprising, and their output, while good, was hardly on par with their best work. Plus, the group's mini-resurgence could just as easily have been attributed to scaling back its workload as to any significant increase in creativity; putting aside Plagiarism (which was just rearrangements of old material), the band's last two albums had each come after a break of six years. Yes, both Gratuitous Sax and Balls had some real gems, but on the whole the band's grand synth pop experiment (now seven albums long if we're counting Plagiarism) had really run out of steam. At this point was going to take a major change of direction to change the band's fortunes.

I really don't know exactly how the inspiration for this album's approach, which I will dub "chamber techno" even though not everything falls under that categorization, came to Russell and Ron, but the idea must have come to them in a pretty short span of time, because they started recording this album about a year after releasing Balls and released it about a year after that. To the extent that this album (at least the first seven tracks; the eighth and ninth tracks need to be categorized on their own) has a formula, it can be described as following this pattern:

1. The music is repetitive in a manner that best emulates techno.

2. The instrumentation is stripped down to a minimal number of keyboard parts, often using "orchestral" synth patches.

3. Percussion is minimal, mostly consisting of an occasional tympani, but certainly not used to generate the primary rhythmic pulse.

4. The primary rhythmic pulse, in turn, comes from the vocals, which tend to grab onto a small number of phrases and repeat them over and over, with occasional vocal asides.

In the first seven tracks, only one, "What Are All These Bands So Angry About?" breaks from the formula significantly (no techno here, though it does have big booming tympanies). The song is essentially an old man rant against kids and their music these days, but it's done in an impressive manner, correctly noting that bands can out-anger and out-profane each other only so much, and there's something oddly piercing about the "Some might have done what we'll never do" line (which comes after namechecking several great musicians) near the end. The formula itself, then, is forcefully introduced with the opening "The Rhythm Thief," which begins with Russell saying "I am the rhythm thief/Say goodbye to the beat/I am the rhythm thief/auf wiedersehen to the beat" over quiet synth strings and quiet repetitions of the phrase "rhythm rhythm rhythm thief," before exploding into a bombastic chorus of "OH NO! WHERE DID THE GROOVE GO, WHERE DID THE GROOVE GO, WHERE DID THE GROOVE GO? Lights out, Ibiza, WHERE DID THE GROOVE GO, WHERE DID THE GROOVE GO, WHERE DID THE GROOVE GO??" over very bombastic parts. The ensuing section is every bit as interesting, mostly because the main rhythmic strike comes from "back" in the phrase "You'll never get it back, you'll never get it back/The rhythm thief has got it and you'll never get it back ..." but also because of the busy bombast coming from Ron's keys underneath. Over the rest of the song, these two main sections are repeated over and over, in whole and in part, until the final conclusion where the introduction, the chorus, and the "never get it back" sections are largely smooshed together. To be honest, I think that Ron missed a chance for an extra level of subversion (especially given the album title) which could have come if he'd bothered to put the sections into sonata form (which could be done with a little bit of reordering), but overall the song is a magnificent statement, not only as a tone-setter for the album but also a full rejection of its techno-pop past.

"How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall" (or, as Russell pronounces it in a way that drives my wife batty, 'Car-NEG-ie Hall') is another clear instance of the formula, except for the fact that orchestral patches are pushed aside (the more bombastic moments don't pretend to be anything other than synths) and that the keyboards are set to sound like a grand piano. The lyrics and rhythmic drive are based around Russell incessantly reciting the setup and punchine of the old "How do I get to Carnegie Hall"/"Practice, man, practice!" joke, with a smattering of other lyrics and occasional other looped bits, like the word "Steinway" or "bravo!" over rhythmic applause and the busy piano. Amidst all of the main chunks of the song, though, I've always found the quiet "still there is no sign of you" line as the most impactful bit.

After "What Are All These Bands So Angry About?" comes "I Married Myself," a quieter song that I used to skip whenever I listened to the album, and while I still don't quite love it, I like it more than I used to. I would best describe it as "variations on a theme from two snippets of an unwritten Wings ballad," and I don't love the bits that are repeated (not to mention that tapping into the same general idea as "Falling in Love With Myself Again" irritates me a little), I've come to like them. Much better is "Ride 'Em Cowboy," which is propelled by electric piano (with occasional synth strings and synth harpsichord draped on top) while Russell sings all sorts of brief snippets hinting at stories of going from bad to worse (sample lines: "From wowed to bored/Ole, then gored").

After "Cowboy" is a track that, along with "The Rhythm Thief," best displays the potential of this album to take simple ideas, repeated incessantly, and make them into something great. "My Baby's Taking Me Home" consists of Russell singing the chorus well over 100 times, with the music building from a simple set of keyboard lines into a thickly arranged explosion (complete with snippets of actual guitar and actual drums), and with a fascinating mid-song monologue that fits in perfectly with the atmosphere of the rest. The song taps into the same kind of anthemic simplicity that used to fuel songs like "Hey Jude" or "Isn't it a Pity," and while that won't win anybody over who hates those songs, it works just fine for somebody like me who loves them. On the other side of the spectrum, though, comes the best example of the album's potential to be annoying as hell. "Your Call is Very Important to Us, Please Hold" is amusing for about 30 seconds, with the opening "I'm getting mixed signals, mixed signals, mixed mixed mixed signals" bit and the first glimpse of the main portion of the song, but the rest of the song makes for one of the longest and most excruciating 4:11 experiences I can think of. I guess that part of the point of the song was to call up the same level of stress and aggravation that comes from being put on hold for a long time, and I respect the effort, but I feel like they went too far. Once again, Sparks shows its ability to mess up in even the best of circumstances.

"Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls" sets the situation right, though. At first it sounds like it's going to be a lovely ballad, albeit with an amusingly bitter title, but then a piercing "wah wah wah wah" from multiple Russells pops up, and then there's a lumbering metallic guitar sound (from Faith No More guitarist Dean Menta), and then suddenly the track becomes the first heavy-guitar-based Sparks song since Big Beat (not counting Plagiarism). The lyrics primarily consist of a really long rant about gold-digging women ending up with ugly rich guys, and while the pedantic detail it goes into could be considered obnoxious, the combination of the rant with pseudo-tough guitars, pounding drums and repeated interjections like "it ain't done with smoke and mirrors!" (as well as repeated instances of the "wah wah wah wah" bit) manages to make the track rather intriguing. It sounds like nothing else on the album to this point, and while the track is a little ridiculous, the contrast between it and the rest of the album is enough to make it a crucial piece of the album.

Finally, the closing vaudeville-inspired "Suburban Homeboy" has pretty much nothing in common with the rest of the album, and it could be considered an out-of-place novelty piece if somebody felt so inclined, but I love it to pieces anyway. The lyrics take on an easy target, namely rich white teenagers (and, in the last verse, rich white graduates of fancy schools) who pretend to be black and ghetto, and while there's a bit of a "shooting fish in a barrel" to it, the lyrics are so silly that I can forgive the relatively low degree of difficulty. "I am a suburban homeboy with a suburban ho right by my side/I am a suburban homeboy and I say 'yo dawg' to my detailing guy." If I'm stupid for liking this song so much, so be it.

Overall, I like this album about as much as I can like any album without quite loving it. After all, it does have a song ("Your Call...") that I really don't like much, and another song ("I Married Myself") that I tend to find a little boring. Plus, as much as I really respect and admire the cleverness needed to take an approach completely unlike any I've ever heard elsewhere, I admit that I sometimes catch myself thinking that the songs go too long, even if their excessive length is part of the point. Honestly, though, these are just nit-picks. If it's not quite on the level of the debut or Kimono, then it's very close, and every Sparks fan (who somehow doesn't know this album already) needs to own this. Let's hear it for the one of the all-time great comeback albums, too.

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |

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