Sparks take a classical turn

The Balls set was very good fun — and Tammy Glover’s sitting in on drums for a bit! — but looked at from a distance I can see a little more clearly now why many fans don’t rate this one as highly, even though I enjoyed it then and still do so now. But in respects I think it’s one of their least performance-oriented albums — instead there’s an emphasis on the music straight up, so more than a few times Russell was content to strike ravetastic poses (which he did very well, but this only emphasized the steady-as-she-goes work the band was doing). Having “Katherine Hepburn” as the encore was a fun touch, though!

Today we finally move into where Sparks have been for a while anyway, as some years back they toured Lil’ Beethoven in full — performing the album for the first half of their sets at the time, then using the second half to dig out older favorites. I caught that tour in LA and also have the Live in Stockholm DVD, and the fact that Dean Menta was playing guitar at that time as well means that I’m used to hearing some feedback with said songs. The reason this is all kinda convenient for me as a result is a simple one — I won’t be able to see the broadcast! A rescheduled doctor’s appointment today meant that I’m out at the time it’ll be happening, but personally I think I’m pretty lucky that the only show I’ve just not been able to see at all was one of the two albums I’ve actually already seen done in full.

As before, the final version of the piece below is in the second part of this Arthur issue, while tonight’s show will be accessible here:

LIL’ BEETHOVEN

Every new decade for Sparks seemed to bring a particular change or tone that they would follow for most of the rest of it, whether it was their warped take on rock and roll in the early seventies, their controlled New Wave incarnation in the eighties or the techno experimentation of the nineties. So whatever the next album after Balls would sound like would be anyone’s guess – at least, that is, until the band started making noises in p.r. and fanclub releases about how what was being worked on was like no other album released before…by anyone. A bold claim and not, in the end, totally true, but it made for a good talking point – one further extended by the announcement of the album title, Lil’ Beethoven.

Armed with a backstory about discovering long-lost classical music manuscripts in Europe, what Ron and Russell did, working once again with Tammy Glover on drums, was definitely unlike any album they had done before, though it was not without precedent. As far back as Indiscreet, “Under the Table With Her” showed what a combination of Russell’s vocals and Tony Visconti’s strings (and nothing else) would sound like, while Visconti’s orchestral contributions on Plagiarism expanded the idea further on a number of songs. Lil’ Beethoven itself, however, pushed the idea to the limit. Completely jettisoning their overt dancebeat approach (but not entirely leaving electronic loops or high-speed keyboard melodies behind – the tension being the dramatic melodies and a buried bass pulse on “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” is one of the album’s highlights), the Maels created a series of lushly orchestrated numbers that, in a way, finally brought out the musical theater/Gilbert and Sullivan aspect of their work completely to the fore.

All this would be conceit if the songs didn’t live up to the inspiration, but thankfully the band was on a total roll, with most of the songs rapidly adding themselves to Sparks’s considerable collection of classics. “The Rhythm Thief” became a statement of purpose for the whole thing (‘Say goodbye to the beat’), while the hilarious trashing of the nü-metal hangover with “What Are All These Bands So Angry About?” and the equally funny “I Married Myself” (‘I’m very happy together’) were high up there too. “My Baby’s Taking Me Home,” though lyrically one of the simplest songs the band had ever done – the words are the title, and one spoken word break from Russell aside, that’s about it – turned out to be an unexpected masterpiece, as close to a Steve Reich tribute as could be imagined in a pop format, topped off with some slamming drums from Glover. But it was the final two songs that were the best, with the closing “Suburban Homeboy,” a witty as hell rip on well-off gangsta wannabes sung like a Nelson Eddy/Jeannette McDonald highlight, turning out to be flawless. But even more important for the future was “Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls,” with massive guitar riffs suddenly exploding into the mix even as Russell pondered the mystery in the album title. For those waiting on the return of Sparks to a rock and roll lifestyle – at least musically speaking – the anticipation was about to end.

Barack on the attack — and that’s a great thing

This will not be a detailed post even though I’ll be making it one of my Political Blogger Alliance ones; however, it is something I think addresses a point of core importance for the next few months.

I freely admit to sometimes doing little more than linking over to Balloon Juice and having done with it, partially because John and Tim and company do a good stuff of more thoroughly tracking and discussing the political sphere (online and off) than I have the ability or patience to do, even when I don’t always agree with them (though this is growing to be much less the case with time). In this case I’m doing similar, but that’s because of a post from John today cutting straight to the chase regarding an issue that’s come up before among many friends — namely, the Democrats’ apparent inability to get through a fog of noise on the right, being reactive rather than proactive.

In discussing Barack Obama’s remarks on economic policy and McCain yesterday, John sums up what seems to be happening quite well, touching on these very issues:

Even as someone who does not agree with every Obama campaign economic policy (windfall taxes, for example), this is a new kind of politics, at least for Democrats. A Democrat forcefully engaging the Republican party, rather than mincing words, cowering in the corner and allowing the fringe to define him, is a new kind of politics.

And it is one you should embrace. Forcefully and confidently defining yourself and what you believe in, while defining your opponent and his ideas is not “dirty politics,” it is politics. Obama did not launch into numerous attacks on John McCain the person, he didn’t raise questions as to whether McCain is in league with the terrorists, he attacked McCain on the issues, over his ideas and his policies. Again, that is not dirty politics, although it is a “new kind” of politics for a party that too often has let the opponent frame the debate with the esoteric hope that “the people are smarter than that” and “will see through the Republican attacks.” Rather than worrying about the Obama campaign, Democrats should be cheering what happened yesterday. It was the first time I remember a Democrat forcefully engaging Republican ideas, explaining why they are wrong, and providing an alternate vision.

All of which is true. It has to be said that the vast majority of responses to Obama on this front from the right have been terribly, obviously boring, reflecting a combination of their disenchantment with McCain in general and their slighted feeling over not having Hillary Clinton to kick around anymore. This lack of fire combined with Obama and others taking the arguments back to them puts them in a position now where they will be increasingly acting much like the pattern John identified for the Democrats previously — thinking that “the people are smarter than that” and “will see through the Democratic attacks.” There’s a cosseting, comforting feeling on this front that could eventually lead to that legendary anecdote about Pauline Kael supposedly wondering how Nixon could have won when she knew nobody who voted for him, only in this case it’ll be Michelle Malkin wondering about Obama.

Could lead, of course, not must. My mantra of Iraq/economy remains paramount but it is very interesting how these waters are getting muddier but not clearer. Relative (and it is just that) calm in Iraq benefits McCain since he can claim credit for it, but the potential backfiring lies there too, since it’ll be just as easy for a mass conclusion to run like so: “Hey, thanks for that and all, but you’re not helping on anything else.” And the economy? Anyone who knows exactly where things’ll stand six months from now is lying to you. NOBODY knows.

Strip aside the projections of cloying messianism that Obama must be shaking his head at more thoroughly by now (one of the stranger moves on the right has been the assumption that he has no sense of humor about it — this deservedly famous photo says it all, in comparison), let him work further on clarifying proposals, ideas, suggestions, encourage contributions on same, and the rest could easily take care of itself. Again, could, not must.

And so we wait.

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Meal by assembly

Sometimes the trick lies in putting a bunch of different things together — the Toscana soup I already had frozen in the fridge, the cherries came with the latest basket, the chocolate/pretzel balls came from Trader Joe’s, the bread was from Avanti with a bit of butter and garlic powder, the marinated cucumber salad I made earlier that day and the wine was the wine. No complaints!

MARINATED CUCUMBER SALAD
2 lg. cucumbers, peeled & sliced thin
1 lg. onion, sliced paper thin
2 tbsp. vinegar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 tbsp. sugar

Place cucumber and onion slices together in a bowl. Mix remaining ingredients together and pour over vegetables. Chill several hours before serving.
Serves 6.

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