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Sparks a bright spot on the scene

April 12, 2004|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

As with the weather, plenty of people complain about the state of pop music, but how many really do anything about it?

Count L.A.'s offbeat Sparks among the doers.

With an abundance of imagination and wit, Sparks linchpins Russell and Ron Mael brought their brilliantly inventive latest album, "Lil' Beethoven," to the stage in its entirety Saturday at the Henry Fonda Theatre.

The album jettisons most of the rules of conventional rock and pop music, largely abandoning guitar, bass and drums for synthesized orchestra and choral forces to pack its punch.

Likewise, the songs trade standard pop structures for repeated minimalist musical and lyrical phrases that force the listener to ponder just what's going on.

In concert, that approach was enhanced with clever visuals projected on a screen behind the Maels and their bandmates, percussionist Tammy Glover and former Faith No More guitarist Dean Menta (who actually played guitar only sporadically).

Sparks' flair for the dramatic showed up in many ways, from the 6-foot-long arms with which the ever-stoic Ron Mael studiously pounded his keyboard in "How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?" and the blond bombshell he paraded around the stage as frontman Russell sang about "Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls."

It's not the apotheosis of pop music, but "Lil' Beethoven" does raise legitimate points about the lack of imagination and ambition in much of what's on the charts these days and brazenly challenges fans and other musicians to expand their horizons. Conceptually and musically, it's their most accomplished work.

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