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RECORD RACK

You can count on them to debunk the emperor

August 31, 2003

Sparks

"Lil' Beethoven" (Palm)

****

The ever-subversive Mael brothers are back with nothing less than a state-of-the-pop-union address. And this isn't the pep talk of a contented incumbent, but a canny indictment from an opposition that's anything but loyal.

Ron and Russell are amused and bemused, angered and saddened at what they find as they survey a pop landscape dominated by aggressive hard rock, relentless rap and hollow pop. But mostly they're amused -- a redeeming sense of humor prevents this from turning into a diatribe.

In the opening "The Rhythm Thief," Russell sings "I am the rhythm thief/ Say goodbye to the beat." The surging arrangement implies the crucial difference between a living song with a pulse and one that merely has a beat, something you do to a dead horse.

Then, with skills honed over their 31-year recording career, they craftily call attention to naked pop emperors whose music is often devoid of melodic, harmonic or rhythmic invention. "How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?" poses and answers ("Practice, man, practice") the age-old musical joke for a new generation. Songs by and large rely on keyboard and string accompaniment, with percussion limited to a thundering timpani in "What Are All These Bands So Angry About?" and drums on the hard-rock mocking "Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls," two songs with the album's only prominent rock guitar work.

With lofty ambition and masterful execution all too rare these days, "Lil' Beethoven" skewers the monotonization of rock as well as the gentrification of hip-hop, the latter brilliantly captured in the album's delightfully bouncy pure-pop finale, "Suburban Homeboy" ("I am a suburban homeboy/ And I say 'Yo, dogg' to my pool-cleaning guy").

Can't bust that, er, stuff.

-- Randy Lewis

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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