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.
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.