While it’s probably safe to say that Sparks and Neil Young share little in the way of aesthetics, they’ve chosen to test audiences in decidedly similar fashion on their current run of performances.
Young has received plenty of attention for staging concerts that present his yet-to-be-released “Greendale” in its entirety as a pseudo-theater piece. But by doing the same thing with their new Palm Pictures offering, “Lil’ Beethoven,” and doing so without the cushion of a proven fan base, Ron and Russell Mael trump Grandpa Grunge for sheer audacity and take a good run at him in terms of artistic achievement.
The brothers, absent from the Stateside scene for some time, pulled out all the stops for this, their first Gotham performance in nearly two decades. But for all the trappings — projections, props, taped fanfares — what ultimately stood out was the quirky brilliance of Ron Mael’s go-for-baroque melodies.
The best of the “Lil Beethoven” songs, while conceptually united, hold up regardless of context. Thus, “The Rhythm Thief,” a reflexive take on Sparks’ own dalliance in dance music, bemoans the loss of the perfect beat, while “What Are All These Bands So Angry About” uses Russell’s arcing falsetto as a battering ram against the forces of angst-ridden nu metal.
Midway through, the presentation lagged a bit, in part because more comparatively raucous songs, such as “Ugly Guys With Beautiful Girls,” were too jarring, particularly given their dependence on brittle taped backing.
Upon completion of the “Beethoven” suite, the Maels — with the usually impassive Ron even venturing out from his keyboard bunker for a bit of revelry — ran through a passel of songs spanning the first three decades of their career. Strongest among these were a ricocheting rendition of “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” and an appropriately warped take on the early-’80s nugget “I Predict.”
They’ve stood the test of time more favorably than their acolytes (Pet Shop Boys, for instance) and while their joyfully op-art stylings may seem out of place in modern pop’s shopping-mall landscape, they’re a powerful restorative to those who still succumb to the thrill of the thrift store.