Sparks: Lil' Beethoven Review
Sparks’ latest live DVD sees the band trying to have it both ways. The first half is occupied by a track-by-track recreation of their most recent album, Lil’ Beethoven, the second by a longer, more conventional “greatest hits” set. Both are taken from the same gig, a 2004 affair in Stockholm, but as newer material it is the former that commands the greater attention. It’s an album that sees Sparks straying into concept album territory, albeit one that is closer to, say, David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs than anything produced under the prog rock banner. And just as Bowie’s effort sprung out of his intentions to mount a Broadway version of George Orwell’s 1984, so too does Lil’ Beethoven have affinities with the musical, specifically the operetta.
It’s not a giant leap for the Mael brothers, and they succeed in maintaining both their ironic wordsmith-ery and the techno-glam stylings. But in reproducing the work in its entirety on-stage they do run into problems. Most notable is the lack of drama that should come with any musical. Of course, there are no performers besides the musicians on-stage (save for one solitary exception) and as such it is the songs themselves that should communicate some kind of narrative sense. Yet by limiting themselves to the strict parameters of the operetta, the songs can’t help but feel a little samey; opening track The Rhythm Thief feels like an opener, but then so does each subsequent number, following as they do the same momentum and tempo. Only on the album’s finale, Suburban Homeboy, does it feel as though a change in gear has taken place, with its revision of gangsta rap clichés in the style of a techno-hoedown (“I’m a suburban homeboy with a suburban ho by my side...I ‘yo yo’ her and she ‘yo yo’s me back”).
That said, the rigidity of the musical forms does suit the small scale surroundings well. Sparks’ own brand of patented oddness (consider the Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer take on their famed Top of the Pops performance of This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us for Shooting Stars - the pair had to play it completely straight quite simply because there is no way to “out-weird” the Mael brothers) means they can carry themselves in whatever size venue, and here they are accompanied by relatively discreet back projections and occasional bit of staged action. Indeed, the entire first half has the air of being a little too stage managed. The songs become almost like scenes, complete with stage hands moving and removing props between each one. In fact, to add to the air of theatricality, there is even an interval before the band break into the career-encompassing second set.
This section is somewhat hampered, however, by the set-up. Seven of the 13 songs played are singles and most are crowd pleasers - including This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us, The Number One Song in Heaven and When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’ - but there never seems any room for much in the way of spontaneity, which should, of course, be integral to any live performance. Rather it is the quieter moments, such as The Ghost of Liberace, which prove more accommodating to the surroundings and thus more enticing. Certainly, the Maels, backed by Tammy Glover and Dean Menta, both of whom provide percussion and backing vocals (plus, in the case of Menta, the occasional burst of guitar), create an often overwhelming wall of sound (especially when employing the DD5.1 option), but the concert remains at a level that is strictly good without ever quite managing to be great. As with Lil’ Beethoven the album, Lil’ Beethoven the DVD works as an intriguing addition to ever increasing Sparks discography, but not as a classic one.
Despite the relatively low-key nature of the gig, Lil’ Beethoven was filmed in widescreen and arrives on disc with an anamorphic transfer at a ratio of 1.78:1. Bearing in mind that it was recorded onto video, the picture remains crisp throughout and the colours are suitably vivid, if at times a little too vivid.
As for the soundtrack, both Dolby Stereo and a DD5.1 mix are available, both of which are fine options. The former, perhaps understandably, gives a fairer indication of what the gig actually sounded like in the venue, although the latter, as noted in the main review, does create a veritable wall of sound. In both instances the disc never provides any difficulties, allowing for a full enjoyment.
With regards to special features, these are largely inconsequential. A brief two-minute featurette entitled ‘The Legend of Lil’ Beethoven’ gives the background to the album’s concept and as such should perhaps have opened the gig rather than be included as an extra. Elsewhere there are 11 minutes of banal post-gig audience interviews (“What do you think of the album?”, “What did you think of the gig?” and a three-minute tongue-in-cheek backstage skit in which Ron Mael sends up superstars’ riders. The final pieces are a text history of the band which is a little too enthusiastic about the latest album, plus a discography featuring the cover art for all 19 Sparks albums. As such we can witness the wonderful Whoomp That Sucker sleeve, plus the airbrushed hideousness that was Introducing Sparks.
As with the main concert, the special features come without subtitles, English or otherwise.
The Rhythm Thief
How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall?
What Are All These Bands So Angry About?
I Married Myself
Ride ’Em Cowboy
My Baby’s Taking Me Home
Your Call Is Very Important To Us. Please Hold
Ugly Guys And Beautiful Girls
It’s A Sparks Show
National Crime Awareness Week
Here In Heaven
The Number One Song In Heaven
Nothing To Do
The Calm Before The Storm
The Ghost Of Liberace
Talent Is An Asset
Hospitality On Parade
(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing
This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us
When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way’