Popular music encompasses a large number of artists who seem perfectly content to plough their own path, regardless of commercial success – sometimes in spite of it. These are the people who make much of the most interesting music (although by no means all – it is perfectly possible to be innovative and commercial, witness the supreme example The Beatles). One band, essentially a duo, that has been around since the beginning of the 1970s and falls solidly into this class is Sparks.
Ron and Russell Mael have produced a consistently subversive and entertaining body of work over this considerable lifetime. Their most recent CD, 2002’s “Lil’ Beethoven”, is no exception and stands in comparison with their best.
“Lil’ Beethoven” is an instantly attractive and seamless series of witty off-center songs that utilize all the clichés of popular (as in well-known) classical music, easy listening and elevator music, even heavy metal, to produce a satisfying whole that really should not be so! Using extensive looping, sampling and repetition allied to a rhythmic sensibility derived from European techno and trance music, the band create a powerfully motoric pastiche that is tied to strong melody.
These are irresistable songs, however many times you hear the same repeated phrase – and some songs consist of barely more than one or two lines – and the reason why is the relentlessly inventive arrangements that surround them.
Just one example is “Your Call’s Very Important To Us. Please Hold.”, a satire based the corporate conceit that that the customer really matters when companies consistently fail to employ sufficient customer relations personnel. The entire song is based around little more than the words of the title, but the surging ostinato string accompaniment punctuated with classical kettledrums pulls you willingly into this treatise on the meaningless of modern life. You emerge wiser and renewed without really knowing why. The other songs have a similar impact.
“Lil’ Beethoven” is a very important work – one that will probably be ignored by most record buyers, but will be gobbled up by musicians. Definitely one to hear.