For better than three decades, brothers Russell and Ron Mael have been laughing at American pop culture from their unique position just outside it. With their amazingly prolific, indomitable, ever-evolving avant-pop outfit Sparks, they've taken swings at glam, punk, disco, and new wave, while mixing satire, sympathy, and straight-up silliness into their flamboyantly erudite songwriting style. Their willful eccentricity prevented them from ever achieving the enormous commercial success of some of their peers (they were always more appreciated in Europe, it seemed), but over the course of many albums and ironic poses they've amassed a fiercely dedicated following enchanted by their pointed wackiness, unabashed theatricality, and unquenchable thirst for reinvention.
When they started in early '70s Los Angeles, the brothers called their band Halfnelson but switched to Sparks on the advice of their manager. Soon after they hooked up with the similarly eccentric pop perversionist Todd Rundgren, who produced their self-titled debut, but it was the follow-up, A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothes, which earned them enduring cult status. Featuring a puree of musical styles from throughout the ages that coalesced into a spastic, hyperactive brand of art pop highlighted by Russell Mael's operatic, sharp-witted, frequently bizarre vocals, it had all the hallmarks that we now associate with a Sparks album (with the exception of clever cover art).
The brothers would prove amazingly prolific, putting out nearly an album a year until the late '80s. There were many highlights: 1974's Kimono My Heart was their playful Southern California take on the glam rock trend. In 1979, they teamed with the great disco producer Giogio Moroder for Number 1 in Heaven, a rhythmic foray into deranged synth-pop. Once they emerged from their disco phase, they put out the soaring, sailing power-pop album Angst in My Pants (1982), a masterpiece of melodic and lyrical acuity. While they slowed down the pace considerably in the '90s, they still released occasional gems like Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins, which saw them -- in their own imitable way -- play a great deal with electronic sounds.
But their newest album, Lil' Beethoven (their 19th), marks yet another shift in tactics, perhaps their most drastic to date. Almost entirely absent are the guitars and beats that have always been such an essential part of the sound, as the album's opening track, "The Rhythm Thief," with its tongue-in-cheek chorus of "where did the groove go," mockingly forecasts. Instead it offers the kind of faux classicality implied by the title, piling high the strings, pianos, and choral harmonies. Still the familiar elements are here: strange tempo changes, oblique references to bygone musical styles, and enormous, weirdly elastic melodies. And of course it wouldn't be Sparks without the glib commentary; among the subjects covered here is the calculated anger of the rap-rock set ("What Are All These Bands So Angry About") and the vagaries of modern telephone bureacracy ("Your Call's Very Important to Us, Please Hold"). After more than 30 years at play, the brothers Mael are somehow even more quintessentially Sparks than ever.