|Sparks - Lil’ Beethoven: Live in Stockholm|
|Written by Dan Macintosh|
|Tuesday, 26 April 2005|
This performance DVD was filmed in March of 2004 at the Sodra Teatern in Stockholm, Sweden, and captures the wonderfully quirky duo of Sparks at its best. This sibling act, comprised of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, has been making its perverse little brand of music since 1970, and comes off here just as sarcastic, funny, smart and insightful as ever.
Sparks was touring in support of its Lil’ Beethoven release when this concert documentary was filmed, and the timing was perfect, since that studio disc is also one of the group’s best. Although the storyline is a little sketchy – about a supposed distant relative of composer Beethoven – this show nevertheless includes plenty of fine songs. However, Sparks’ real purpose is not to tell a story, but rather to provide humorous social commentary on a wide variety of subjects. So if you love sarcasm, you’ll likely be delighted by this show.
This concert disc opens with “The Rhythm Thief,” as the show’s set list mirrors the Lil’ Beethoven release’s song order. This opening number is sung from the perspective of someone evilly intent on letting all of the air out of the dance music balloon by completely removing its beat. Music, obviously, would have to be a common theme on any album named after an imagined Beethoven family member, so much of the concert’s content is music-related. Not surprisingly, the old adage about how practice is the only way to make it to Carnegie Hall is explored with “How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall?” The best music-related performance, however, is one called “What Are These Bands So Angry About?” It serves as an examination of the whole recent grunge music movement.
Remember when every new band that came along had a big chip on its shoulder? Naturally, this grumpy genre presented stark competition for acts such as Sparks, because the Mael brothers have always gone for the brainy over the brawny. But it also makes you wonder just how much of this movement’s anger was real, and how much of it was merely put on simply for effect. Sparks survived the grunge trend, and has continued on, despite many other movements before and after it.
Russell Mael sings lead on all Sparks’ songs, and always does so with a wonderfully sardonic inflection in his voice. It’s impossible not to grin while he performs. Lyrically, he’s almost like a comedian in the way he has fun with the foibles of human behavior. So when he pontificates on boy/girl stuff, for instance, it must be hard for him to do so with a straight face. Although it’s not specifically another music-related song, the lifestyles of certain rock stars almost certainly inspired the words to “Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls.” How many times have you read about a butt-ugly rock performer that married a smokin’ hot supermodel right after making it big? The brothers of Sparks certainly notice this unfair trend, and it troubles them. Relationship issues, and the near impossibility of making such partnerships work, mostly likely drove Sparks to create the track “I Married Myself.” It’s a sad one, too, in that the only recourse for this particular character – presumably taken after several failed couplings -- was to engage in the extreme action of marrying himself. Ironically, he expresses how he’s never been happier. Now isn’t this romantic narcissism at its most tragic?
Sparks likes nothing better than to point out the ridiculousness of particular human personality types. For instance, “Suburban Homeboy” takes a sardonic view of the way white people always try so hard to look, sound, and act black. This practice has been going on ever since Pat Boone ripped off Little Richard and whitewashed rock and roll. Similarly, gangsta rappers wouldn’t be traveling with all that bling-bling if middle class white kids weren’t also laying down big buck for their CDs and buying into the whole thug life lifestyle. On “Your Call’s Very Important To Us, Please Hold,” Sparks examines the impersonal nature of our modern automatic phone systems. The song title alone exposes this common contradiction: If a phone call were really important, wouldn’t somebody pick up the call right away?
Watching Sparks perform live here is – at least visually – a little bit like witnessing a Cheap Trick show. Only cut in half. Just as Cheap Trick is comprised of two cute guys and two nerds, Sparks has one cute guy, and one sort of Hitler-y, dorky, nerdy guy. While Russell, the cute one, stands up front and sings the songs, Ron lays back and plays the keyboards. Rather than using words to express himself, however, Ron mugs at the camera and even dances a bit now and again. And at one point, he faces Russell and holds up a lit Bic lighter during “What Are These Bands So Angry About?”
Musically, a live Sparks show is primarily driven by pre-recorded keyboard sounds, although on this tour, a keyboardist and an electric guitarist also accompanied it. It is obvious that these four musicians alone aren’t making all of the sounds that can be heard, but whereas such pre-recorded performances might offer a distraction in the hands of lesser artists, Sparks is just too visually stimulating for such foreknowledge to bother you much at all. This is because you just can’t take your eyes off of these Mael brothers.
In addition to a complete performance of the CD Lil’ Beethoven, this show also features Sparks playing many of its favorite catalogue songs. Older tunes include “The Ghost of Liberace” and “Talent Is an Asset.” Clearly, this set list was designed for diehard fans. Nevertheless, it still would have been fun to see duo also do hits like “Cool Places” and “I Predict.” This DVD’s extras include Russell trying to explain the legend of Lil’ Beethoven, as well as an especially funny interview bit with Ron backstage. It’s silly, in a “This Is Spinal Tap” sort of way, to hear Ron talk about all the supposed special treatment Sparks receives while on tour. Although this bit was more than likely improvised, it makes one wonder what Ron Mael might accomplish with a longer piece. He obviously has that dry comedic thing down pat.
Although Sparks has never been a blockbuster act, the material on this DVD evidences why it still retains such strong staying power. So if you’re tired of watching all of those faux-angry bands and suburban homeboys crowding the MTV airwaves, Sparks may well give you a welcome jolt of intelligent humor. Unlike so much of today’s trendy now-you-dig-it, now-you-don’t acts, Sparks seemingly never gets old. In other words, its music is timeless.