Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot (Capitol ’95) Rating: B+
Mark Linkous arrived as a fully formed talent on Sparklehorse's debut album, recorded with members of Cracker; Cracker main man David Lowery also co-produced much of the album under the pseudonym David Charles. Then again, the album sounds barely produced much of the time, as the album has a woozy, dusty "lo-fi" vibe that sometimes sells Linkous' songs short ("Beautiful Horsey's," for example) but which usually fits the songs just fine. Most of this album sees Linkous delivering sad, slow, spare ballads alongside loud, faster paced rockers with distorted guitars, and as such the album has something of a fractured, schizophrenic personality, plus he unfortunately throws in several pointlessly annoying but thankfully short segues ("850 Double Pumper Holley," "Little Bastard Choo Choo," "Ballad Of A Cold Lost Marble") that all but beg to be skipped. Taken on their own most of the actual songs are impressive, however, starting with the sparse Shakespeare quoting "Homecoming Queen." Elsewhere, Linkous includes other literary (Joseph Conrad on "Heart Of Darkness") and musical (CCR on "Weird Sisters") references (fine songs both, by the way, if not quite album highlights), and it can be fun trying to spot them, but even without Linkous' playful and often surreal lyrical gifts listening to most of these songs is quite enjoyable. Well, I wouldn't call sad ballads such as "Most Beautiful Widow in Town" and "Sad & Beautiful World" enjoyable, but they are indeed sad, beautiful, and deeply affecting, while Linkous' fragile vocals and gorgeous guitars mark "Spirit Ditch" and the delectably dreamy "Saturday" as obvious standouts. "Rainmaker," "Hammering the Cramps" and "Someday I Will Treat You Good" are hard rocking, anthemic highlights (albeit anthemic in a modest lo-fi Guided By Voices sort of way), and the epic 7-minute "Cow," while not quite as fulfilling, still builds nicely after a slow start and features grungy Neil Young-ian electric guitars (instruments such as accordion, banjo, and harmonica add ambiance as well). Sure, most of the rest of the songs not mentioned are much less notable, and there are definitely a few too many of them, but on the whole this was an impressive first installment in the Sparklehorse franchise, though the next two albums would be even better.
Good Morning Spider (Capitol ’99) Rating: A-
After releasing an absurdly titled debut album called Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, Mark Linkous, who pretty much is Sparklehorse, died from an accidental drug overdose. Fortunately, he was resuscitated from the great beyond, and he then composed Good Morning Spider during the many arduous wheelchair-bound months that it took to recover from his ordeal (conjuring memories of Robert Wyatt and Rock Bottom, though unlike Wyatt Linkous would eventually be able to walk again). As you would expect, this resulting second album is both subdued and somber. Unfortunately, a few of these sparsely decorated songs drift prettily by without being especially memorable, not all of the segues seem entirely necessary (but believe me they are huge improvement from the last album), and Linkous the producer again occasionally sabotages Linkous the songwriter with a deliberately strange “lo-fi” production (most notably on “Happy Man,” which has some terrific moments but at times sounds like it was recorded on the wrong frequency!). Fortunately, Good Morning Spider is almost always interesting and has quite a few outstanding songs. For example, “Pig” begins the album with a gloriously chaotic and abrasive rocker, “Sick Of Goodbyes” (co-written with Lowery, who had previously recorded it for Cracker’s Kerosene Hat) presents a catchy, singable pop chorus, "Cruel Sun" is a chugging, riff-driven, air guitar worthy rocker, and "Ghost Of His Smile" has wonderfully hooky new wave keyboards (I think that those are keyboards). Elsewhere, the album is comprised primarily of delicate ballads, the best of which are the gorgeously dreamy “Painbirds,” “Sunshine,” which has a sad but unforgettable thrift store keyboard melody, “Hey Joe,” an extremely pretty Daniel Johnston cover, "Hundreds Of Sparrows," with its mournful cello and falsetto vocals, and (my personal favorite) “Maria’s Little Elbows,” a lonesome lament that by all rights should’ve been all over the radio. A highly original and effortlessly graceful songwriter whose gentle warble brings Dean Wareham of Luna to mind, Linkous needs only to better focus his eccentricities in order to produce the major work that he seems eminently capable of; perhaps an outside producer would help in this regard.
It's A Wonderful Life (Capitol '01) Rating: A-
Well, I got what I wanted in the presence of hot producer Dave Fridmann, which proves to be both a blessing and a curse. Fridmann gives the album a beautifully lush sound and rids Linkous of his lo-fi ways (except on “Devil’s New,” a rare misstep here) and his tendency to under-develop songs (no skippable segues this time). However, Sparklehorse has lost some of their startling uniqueness in the process, as the "band" sounds a lot like recent Mercury Rev/Flaming Lips albums (not surprising given Fridmann’s close association with those bands) rather than standing out as the erratic but dazzlingly original Sparklehorse. As such, It's A Wonderful Life, which is considerably less eclectic and country flavored overall, lacks some of the character of Good Morning Spider. However, this is a more cohesive and consistent album that is ultimately almost as rewarding (I know, I give them both A-'s, which is an indictment of my flawed rating system as well as an admission that these albums are close in quality), and it has plenty of potential highlights even if those high points don't rise quite as high to me as the standouts on Good Morning Spider. Certainly the lullaby-like title track is outstanding, "Gold Day" and "Babies On The Sun" have that lovely yet disorientingly woozy 'horse vibe that I've come to know and love, "Eyepennies" is a memorably funereal piano ballad, and "Little Fat Baby" and "Comfort Me" have instantly appealing and somewhat livelier melodies. There are a couple of good moody rockers as well in “Piano Fire,” which sounds like a less amped up Dinosaur Jr., and “King Of Nails,” whose best traits are its loud beats and distorted riffs. However, the experimental Tom Waits cameo (“Dog Door,” which sticks out here like a sore thumb) aside, most of It’s A Wonderful Life contains gorgeously dreamy and gentle ballads with surreal (and strangely animal-obsessed) lyrics (remember even going back to Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot he talked about cows and "horseys"). Additional guest singing appearances by P.J. Harvey ("Piano Fire," "Eyepennies") and The Cardigans’ Nina Persson ("Gold Day," "Apple Bed") further enhance the slow, somber mood of the album, which despite a few boring lulls along the way makes for a beautifully comforting rainy day companion.
Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (Astralwerks '06) Rating: B+
After a long five year layoff, Linkous came back with Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, which if nothing else figures to give Yo La Tengo’s latest album competition for silliest album title of the year (it still doesn’t top Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, though). Questionable album title aside, this is another strong entry from a talented performer, though it isn’t quite as fascinatingly flawed and packed with highlights as Good Morning Spider, or as consistent and cohesive as It's a Wonderful Life. Hardcore fans will also lament the reappearance of several tracks that had already appeared elsewhere (see the note at the end of this review), but most listeners will be gleefully unaware or won’t care, so we’ll just focus on the actual merits of these songs, ok? "Don't Take My Sunshine Away" and “Some Sweet Day” have wonderfully airy summertime choruses, and “Shade and Honey” is a slow building, low-key stunner that may very well be his best song yet. "Return to Me" is a sad and lonely, sparse acoustic ballad reminiscent of Elliott Smith, and on the more rocking front there's "Ghost in the Sky" and "It's Not So Hard," a pair of surging rockers with loud, distorted guitars. Come to think of it, grungy guitars briefly appear on “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away” as well, as Linkous adds static, distortion, and assorted blips to many of these tracks, almost as if he's scared to, or simply doesn’t want to, actually write a hit song. As such, some songs here, such as “Getting It Wrong” and “Mountains,” are a little too lo-fi and fuzzy for their own good, while the title track starts slow and then doesn’t really do a heck of a lot for 10+ minutes. Its sad and lonely mood is still enticing, though, and the same could be said about the pleasantly groovy “See The Light.” The 7+ minute "Morning Hollow," a duet with Sol Seppy that also features Tom Waits (one of several high-profile people who make extremely low-profile, barely perceptible appearances), is also pretty but drags after awhile, whereas "Knives of Summertime" provides another singable highlight with summery qualities. As for other prototypical Sparklehorse qualities that appear, there’s the usual idiosyncratic, impressionistic lyrics, fragile vocals that occasionally suffer from marble-in-mouth-itis, and all sorts of wrong-yet-right layering of sounds that end up sounding much better than they have any right to. Still, the end result is a very good rather than great Sparklehorse album, though in truth he’s yet to totally nail down the masterpiece album that I believe he has in him. Whether he delivers on that lofty promise or not remains to be seen, but either way I’ll gladly take whatever distinctively sad, eccentric musings he decides to put out. Note: "Shade and Honey" was first heard being sung by actor Allesandro Nivola in the 2002 movie Laurel Canyon. "Ghost in the Sky" originally appeared on the Japanese version of It's A Wonderful Life; on the American version of that album, "Morning Hollow" appeared as a hidden track and the title track appeared as "Maxine" (vinyl version only). Note #2: Alas, the Elliott Smith comparison turned out to be sadly apt, as like Smith before him, Linkous committed suicide on March 6, 2010. He will no doubt be greatly missed by a small but devoted coterie of musical admirers, yours truly among them.