I'll give you a brief primer, since it's unlikely that you're familiar with this band: Sparklehorse is Mark Linkous, his custom built Static King studio, and a bunch of local Richmond musicians from bands like the Silos, the Long Ryders, House of Freaks, and Gutterball, to mention a few. But it is really just Mark Linkous; he is the creative genius and songwriter - it's his vision all the way. His debut record, "Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot", was easily one of the most overlooked records of 1996. It received virtually no press or promotion, even in his local Virginia; the only reason I bought it, six months after it came out, is because I read somewhere that Johnny Hott, the drummer from House of Freaks, one of my favorite defunct bands, played on a few tracks.
It was well worth it, though. "Vivadixie" quickly assumed the primary slot in my rotation; I listened to little else for months. It was a spare, haunting record that also contained deeply emotional moments of intimacy and happiness. Buzz about Sparklehorse continued to grow after Radiohead's Thom Yorke mentioned them as one of his favorite groups in interviews; he even asked Mark to open for Radiohead for several European dates (this is part of the reason that the record was released in Europe last July, while it was released here just a month or so ago).
"Good Morning Spider" picks up where "Vivadixie" left off, developing the Sparklehorse sound in new ways without losing the emotional tone that defines Linkous's work. It is greatly influenced by his brush with death: while in England opening for Radiohead, Mark accidentally mixed his prescription anti-depression medication with Valium, causing him to pass out. When he fell, he cut off the circulation in his legs, causing toxins to build up in his blood. This almost killed him and left him in a wheelchair for months afterward. "Pig", the opening track, is rage directed at his broken body, voice distorted and guitars blazing:
I wanna new face right now
and I want it bad
I wanna new body that's strong
I'm a butchered cow
"Saint Mary" refers to the 12 weeks he spent in the London hospital of the same name. Other songs, such as "Painbirds", "Come On In", and "Cruel Sun", refer more indirectly to the accident and its physical and emotional aftermath, dealing with themes of pain, sleep/death, and the achingly slow passage of time.
"Sunshine" is easily one of my favorites on this album; it is sad and slow without being ponderous, a zen meditation on the loss of things:
There will come a time gigantic waves
Will crush the junk that I have saved
When the moon explodes or floats away
I'll lose the souvenirs I made
"Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man" showcases Linkous's particular brand of studio wizardry: a quiet organ loop fades into static, as if the listener were switching radio stations on a manual car radio; A voice and electric guitar fade in and out of the static, lyrics barely audible. Abruptly the static takes over again, and we here a faint echo of the original organ piece before the song comes back, stronger than ever, and finally overwhelms the static. It is a beautiful piece of studio manipulation that somehow adds to the sincerity of the song; it is in some ways the essence of what Mark Linkous is trying to accomplish with Sparklehorse.
Other standout tracks include "Hey, Joe", a cover of a Daniel Johnson song (whose influence has always been evident in Sparklehorse), "Maria's Little Elbows", the first single, "All Night Home", a strange but endearing song driven by odd electronic beeps and drums, and "Sick of Goodbyes".
The album finishes with two quiet and deceptively strong numbers. "Hundreds of Sparrows", a simple little love song that paraphrases the Bible:
Every hair on your head is counted
You are worth hundreds of sparrows
The tree you planted has become fecund
With kamikaze hummingbirds
"Junebug" is a tender acoustic piece that looks forward to the beginning of Spring, ending the album on a hopeful note.
Sparklehorse isn't for everybody; there are few unabashedly happy moments in their songs, especially on an album like this one that is always introspectively concerned with pain, sickness, and death. But Mark Linkous's rough craftmanship, drop dead honesty, and raw talent as a songwriter all contribute to a unique sound that is as original and interesting as any artist working today.