Sparks

Lil' Beethoven

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Anybody looking for Sparks to return to the timeless lushness of "Under the Table With Her" or the sonic indiscretions of "Change," the disconcerting dynamics of "Equator," or the pulsing repetition of Number One Song in Heaven is going to recognize Lil' Beethoven almost immediately. But anybody holding any of those ideals so dear that they cannot see past their superficial tensions is going to be left in disarray. Lil' Beethoven is the (or, more appropriately, a) summation of everything Sparks had been promising for the past 30 years. It is also quite unlike anything they have ever delivered before. The classical pretensions of the title are mirrored exactly in the music. Strings, acoustics, piano, and chorales are the album's primary assets, layered on with such guile that their essential simplicity is absolutely disguised. Lyrically, Lil' Beethoven is sharper than Sparks have sounded in a while -- at least since the best bits of Gratuitous Sax, with the closing "Suburban Homeboy" a brilliant summary of every rich kid booming rap from their mother's SUV ("I say 'yo! Dog' to my detailing guy"). One song, though, is constructed almost wholly around a joke that is older than dirt ("How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?" -- "practice, man, practice"); another takes the bulk of its lyric from a stubborn voice-mail system ("Your Call Is Very Important to Us -- Please Hold"). But, while the repetition itself can grow...well, repetitive, on an album that stakes out its parameters by introducing "The Rhythm Thief" ("oh no, where did the groove go?"), then letting him steal every beat off the record, the mantras themselves become a pulse of sorts, around which the orchestrations take the wildest flights. There are breaks. The exquisite "I Married Myself" is as lush a loving ballad as Sparks have ever wrapped their more Beatlesque aspirations around, and that despite the entire song stretching out over the kind of prelude that other people might have reserved for a pretty prelude alone. Later, "Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls" is less a lyric, more a son-of-"Change"-style diatribe, but the greatest shock comes when you realize just how easily conditioned you were by the rest of the album. Thumping beat and wired guitar leap out with such resolute energy that it feels like you're listening to another record entirely -- every time you play it. And that is the magic of Lil' Beethoven. It takes a few plays to understand and a few more to appreciate. But how many times can you listen to it through and still be discovering new things to admire? That's a question that time alone can answer.

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