|Photo by Aaron Rappaport|
Just the other day, you were saying that you wanted to hear something different, popwise, that you were well and truly bored with all the merely adequate product bombarding your senses and thus making you feel that everything’s just . . . okay. Well now, here’s something new and truly different, and it comes perhaps not surprisingly from L.A.’s own neglected sons Ron and Russell Mael, a.k.a. Sparks. Lil’ Beethoven (Palm) is the name of the boys’ fresh album, which is not just an album but rather an opus or small symphony or a work similarly grand and upwardly striving and not just your average pop/rock high standard of standardness.
It’s because all things pop have in general become so impossibly forking dull that Ron and Russell were forced to take drastic measures, and so with Lil’ Beethoven they reached, reached, reached for the stars. As traveling to our favorite stellae usually does, Sparks’ adventurous new project took a long time . . .
“A little over a year,” says Ron. “We had a whole album of songs that were going to be the follow-up to the Balls album, and then we just got so frustrated, and we sort of scrapped the songs and wanted to start with another approach. We weren’t even sure what that approach was. We were sure it’d be song-based, and usually we would just go in the studio and hash it out. But this time around we decided not to work that way.”
Russell: “I read that Radiohead recorded their new album in two weeks. God, how do you do that? I want to do one of those.” He laughs.
I’ve mentioned that Lil’ Beethoven is different, popwise, and one of the more interesting ways is that for the most part it’s a lavishly voice-and-synthetic-strings-laced anti-beat manifesto, which is ironic, since Sparks have stood for many years now on the frontlines of electronic dance. Starting with the opening track, “The Rhythm Thief,” the listener is confronted with music not built upon percussive beats; indeed the beats don’t appear till the sixth cut, “My Baby’s Taking Me Home,” and by that time an almost unbearable tension has developed.
Meanwhile, however, that tension is busy being ameliorated by some amazingly beautiful and complexly counterpointed music, along with many very finely phrased and comically serious words. As usual, Ron’s lyrics slice the wry in metaphorical ways. Like, for example, “The Rhythm Thief,” which asks the musical question, “Where did the groove go?”
Ron: “Specifically, it’s about rhythm — that there’s not anything really exciting going on.”
“We were finding lack of inspiration in a lot of areas in life,” says Russell.
“It’s too limiting to have songs that are just about something specific,” says Ron. “If we do something, it’s nice to have a layer of meanings to it.”
That’s true, of course, as on amusing tunes like “What Are All These Bands So Angry About?,” “Your Call’s Very Important to Us. Please Hold” and “I Married Myself” (“I’m very happy together”), although when Sparks get down to a long track called “Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls,” the lyrics are so superspecific that it’s actually chortle-inducing. Here they’ve done some impressive research into the bizarre titular phenomenon, and come fully armed with facts and figures to back up their assertions: “How do we explain this? An attraction of opposites? No, that theory has been refuted by many experts in the field of human psychology. A much greater attraction seems to come from one more similar to oneself. Personality, perhaps? Without intending to sound judgmental, I would say that he doesn’t look like what was once called a ‘live wire’ or ‘the life of the party.’ He appears rather expressionless. His movements are stiff and even awkward. Perhaps he is a person of some intellect — an expert in science, the arts, political theory. No, I think not . . .”
Russell: “Ha-ha. That one is almost too detailed. That’s what we like about that song — you could have said that idea in three minutes, we said it in seven. Of course, it’s all based on real-life situations.”
Musically and conceptually, Lil’ Beethoven is quite an audacious project, and that it succeeds so well is testimony to the sheer boredom that prompted its creation.
“In pop music,” says Russell, “everything tends to sound similar; you’re using the same loops or the same rhythm patterns, and it’s gonna sound like something you’ve heard before. We wanted to try to see if there are other ways of working. Well, we love being really aggressive, and have hard-hitting things, but if you take out the drums and the guitars, how do you make it have the aggression that those instruments give to pop music?”
Lil’ Beethoven, a set of nine songs with the overall feel of an operetta or a 70mm film, achieves its pop-aggression accessibility via several daring technical maneuvers such as having the string sounds and vocals pick up the slack in roles the rhythm and guitars would normally fulfill. It’s a fascinating method, achieving the rock-requisite thumping forward motion as well as the mesmerizing effect of electronic-dance tracks. The brothers, as usual, worked mostly on their own in Russell’s home studio, carping and kvetching it through till the thing sounded right, like it could survive on its own in the cruel world outside.
“We know that we have a certain sensibility,” says Ron, “but we wanted to be sure. And we took the chance of it alienating some people. As a result of working with really good producers in the past, such as Tony Visconti, we’ve become better at criticizing ourselves and not being precious about things. We don’t want to have to ask somebody for their opinion, because it’s often irrelevant.”
The upshot is an album full of that thing you want and need — surprise. The surprises arise from the Mael brothers’ unusual way of assembling the pieces, which involved much shifting and editing and filtering of the instrumental and vocal parts with the aid of computer software and other processes that shall remain secret. All you really need to know is that you will be rather stunned at how all the layering and modifying of voices and keyboards produces unusual harmonies and several quite thrillingly dynamic wide-screen experiences. I hasten to point out that none of this veers off into the realm of the avant-garde; the miraculous thing is how Lil’ Beethoven seems to give birth to a new musical genre. But what that genre shall be called, um . . .
“It’s easy to be weird and do things that aren’t in a pop sensibility,” says Russell. “In the end, we love pop music, so we think there are nine hit songs on this album, that it’s just a different form of what hit songs should sound like.” That’s an opinion shared by Palm’s legendary head cheese, Chris Blackwell, who re-signed Sparks (he’d shepherded many of their early-’70s successes on his Island Records) after being tipped on Lil’ Beethoven at the urging of a friend at V2 Records.
When it comes to pop, the time has come to “Throttle the whole thing and say, There’s gotta be other ways to do it,” says Russell. And Lil’ Beethoven really does feel like Sparks have accomplished that. It is different, radically so, but, one can imagine, in a way the entire damn family could enjoy.
“It sounds arrogant,” says Ron modestly, “but we wanted to do something very important and ambitious. It doesn’t seem like enough people are being pretentious in a good way. Although we know that most bands wouldn’t want to go through what we had to go through to come up with this record.
“It’s hard to be objective about whether music matters to people now in the same way that some things mattered to us when we were younger. But we attempted an equivalent effect — you hear something and just can’t believe it. It’s rich. Because now, it’s like . . . where did the groove go?”