SPARKLEHORSE Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot (Parlophone)
Sparklehorse, an American band centred around the doomed genius of one Mark Linkous, bring something a little different to the sadcore party. Sure, theyve spent far more time than is sensible listening to scratchy old Nick Drake albums, the idea of nicking lyrical conceits from Neil Young at his mopiest has yet to wear thin (a "burned-out basement", anyone?), and yes, much of "Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot" would rest easily on the ears of any self-respecting Tindersticks, Red House Painters, Acetone or (especially) American Music Club fan. But the twist is in the presentation: besides the usual guitar/drums combo, found sounds and conversation entwine around such unconventional instrumentation as dying guitar amp, duct tape chord organ, hammer in vibraphone and echoharp; its as if "After The Goldrush" period Neil Young (who, to be fair, Linkous does a pretty passable interpretation of, albeit with his voice shunted through all kinds of sonic mangling equipment) were being re-interpreted by Eno, This Mortal Coil and Mercury Rev. Added to which, Linkous is a terrific songwriter, from the achingly beautiful likes of "Homecoming Queen", "Most Beautiful Widow In Town" and "Saturday" down to the barely-more-than-a-chant "Hammering The Cramps" and the evil "Someday I Will Treat You Good". "Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot" is a classic of its kind, albeit in a genre so insular that everybody who would like it probably already owns it.
SPARKLEHORSE Good Morning Spider (Parlophone)
Excuse me for ambling off on yet another of my unjustifiable enthusiasms, but heres the album of the year. (Well, this months album of the year, at least). Sparklehorses second long player is so redolent, heck, pregnant with beauty, meaning, depth, minutely detailed observation, all of it shot through with the simple wonder of being alive (this last being the kind of aura that The Verve came close to at times on their last two albums but were never really totally comfortable with) that its going to take the arrival of something remarkable between now and December to topple "Good Morning Spider" from its perch for me (possible contenders include the new Manic Street Preachers and Mercury Rev albums...but we shall see).
First, some history, because although it may sound like an elitist and snobbish thing to say, you really will understand this album more thoroughly if you know of the circumstances which created it. Touring to promote Sparklehorses wondrous debut album "Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot" (itself an alternately brutal and beautiful work written whilst trying to kick heroin addiction) in early 1996, singer/songwriter/guitarist/keyboard player/percussionist Mark Linkous collapsed in his London hotel room, unconscious for nine hours with his legs trapped under him. When paramedics tried to rescue him, trapped potassium shot to his heart, causing a massive heart attack that rendered him technically dead for a few minutes. After some time confined to a wheelchair, Linkous has now recovered - although he cant run anymore and still takes antidepressants - and its this experience that forms the basis of "Good Morning Spider".
The bile and bawling that characterised vast tracts of "Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot" is all excised within the first two minutes: opening track "Pig" is a fuzzy, distorted rant that sounds a little like Rocket From The Crypt couldve if Andy Warhol had got hold of them in 1966 instead of The Velvet Underground - sample lyric "I want to be a tough-skinned bitch but I dont know how". The rest of "Good Morning Spider" is much mellower and more restful - imagine the Red House Painters being produced by Eno and Daniel Lanois (if that didnt smack of some nasty corporate cop-out); on top of this Linkous plays with the contents of an abandoned Radio Shack the way Tom Waits made music out of junkyards from "Swordfishtrombones" onwards, smothering the songs with primitive sampling, found sounds and atmospheres: theres even a Speak and Spell machine in there somewhere. (Oh, and Tom Waits is a Sparklehorse fan apparently, as if you hadnt guessed already.)
I wont attempt to pull "Good Morning Spider" apart strand by strand - for one thing Id much, much rather be listening to it, and secondly these are very personal songs, and what you get from them may be very different to what they suggest to me. But Id like to draw your attention to two key moments which close side one, which I would guess to be the key to the whole kit caboodle. First theres "Sunshine", a gorgeous, harmonium-strewn song about lying down in the grass and letting the insects do their thing, written and sung by a man who knows (hopefully more than any of us) the true value of being able to do so. Its followed by "Chaos Of The Galaxy/Happy Man" which alternates between what sounds like a slowly unwinding chapel organ and an impassioned testimonial with Linkous singing stuff like "I woke up in a horses stomach one foggy morning/His eyes were crazy as we crashed into the cemetery gates/All I want is to be a happy man". And what does he do with this, possibly the most personal of all his personal lyrics? He submerges it, sometimes totally, with radio interference, static and whistling. Its a cod psychologists dream, and possibly the most amazing four minutes of music Ive heard this year.
The rest of "Good Morning Spider" is almost as fantastic - think Lullaby Of The Working Class playing Big Star and youll be roughly at the level of greatness I think Sparklehorse have achieved here - but its an album youll really have to discover for yourself, as no amount of my rambling could do it the justice it so richly deserves. One final thought: in the moments that I havent been playing this over the last few weeks (very few, Ill admit) Ive been listening to "Blood On The Tracks", chiefly as a result of Jon Rileys hundred fine words about it in the last issue. Now, I wouldnt want to make a tenuous and insupportable link between these two great albums, but I reckon they have a great deal in common: both were written by broken (albeit in very different ways) people, and both sound as if they have hundreds upon hundreds of terrific film scripts buried deep inside. And maybe both of them are more modern interpretations of the blues traditions, albums you can take some comfort from, and pass on as a better, more complete person. (And if thats true, doesnt it point to the whole gamut of, for want of a more appropriate phrase, unhappy music, (or complaint rock as Alicia Silverstone calls it in "Clueless") from The Smiths to Radiohead, with the grunge and sadcore movements in between, as being an unproductive wrong turn in the evolution of the truly sensitive song? I dont know myself...Im only asking.) Enough of that - "Good Morning Spider" is simply a great, great album: buy it before somebody turns it into a film.SPARKLEHORSE Distorted Ghost EP (Odeon)
"Distorted Ghost EP" is a brief between-albums cupboard-clearing by Mark Linkous' consistently wonderful lo-fi sadcore outfit. The six tracks are a mixture of the previously unheard and new versions of old favourites. The stunning "Happy Man" appears here in two guises, one recorded by and featuring Captain Beefheart, P J Harvey and Pixies collaborator Eric Drew Feldman, the other being an even fuzzier Radio 1 session take that crash-lands into a verse of "Pig" towards the end. The new songs are pleasant enough b-side fodder, inessential but welcome nevertheless. What chafes slightly is that without much more effort "Distorted Ghost" could have grown into a full-length compendium of rarities - what Sparklehorse enthusiast wouldn't love to own their cover version of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here", for example? Still, for those in the know this is a must-have, and should keep us going until the next album - rumoured to feature long-time fan Tom Waits - arrives.SPARKLEHORSE It's A Wonderful Life (Capitol)
This, folks, is just me being greedy. "It's A Wonderful Life", Sparklehorse's third long player proper, is a lovely album. It was produced by ex-Mercury Rev member Dave Fridmann, a man never knowingly even in the same postcode as a bad album, whose previous sonic triumphs include the Rev's own "Deserter's Songs", The Flaming Lips equally luminous "The Soft Bulletin" and the last two Mogwai albums. He's the only producer whose presence on an album sleeve will guarantee my rock dollar$: he seems to have this unconscious, innate gift for allowing the sound in a musician's head to come flooding out, yet his sonic fingerprint on his work is well nigh invisible. Also guesting on "It's A Wonderful Life" are a veritable Woodstock nation of indie aristocracy, including Nina Persson of The Cardigans (soon to release a Linkous-assisted solo album of her own, under the moniker A Camp), Portishead's Adrian Utley, P J Harvey and her collaborator John Parrish and, in the stuff of optimistic daydreams, Tom Waits, whose junkyard orchestrations heavily influenced the sound of early Sparklehorse. And Mark Linkous provides a neat dozen perfectly tailored songs that seemingly parcel up all the most potent images his discography has to offer in the same warm, enveloping static fug and the creak of elderly keyboard instruments.
And I think that's what's the matter here. "It's A Wonderful Life" is the extant Sparklehorse template nudged and polished to the very peak of perfection, every song glimmering and shining and tapping the heartstrings just so. It's utterly exquisite, one of the most beautiful albums you're likely to hear this year. (The new Mercury Rev album is still a week away as I type, but it's the only serious competition I can envisage). But at the centrepiece of the last Sparklehorse album, "Good Morning Spider", were two songs that look increasingly like they might dwarf everything and anything that will ever escape from Linkous' pen. "Sunshine" was a gorgeous, ruminative sunsplash about lying in the grass and letting the insects do their thing over, under, sideways, down you, written, remember, by a man who had been technically dead following a post-gig collapse in a London hotel room. "Chaos Of The Galaxy/Happy Man" was the sound of a universe of radio transmissions boiling in on themselves whilst Linkous ranted "All I want is to be a happy man". And nothing on "It's A Wonderful Life" can touch these songs, which are so other-worldly out-there in their sheer, numbing greatness that they make everything here, on this shimmering, deeply humane album look as if it was constructed from a build-your-own-Sparklehorse-song Lego set.
Told you I was greedy.