3 Album Reviews: Sparklehorse

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Sparklehorse – Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot (1995) – C+

I remember discovering Sparklehorse by word of mouth back in 2009, and I remember falling in love with a few gems within his discography: the lovely PJ Harvey-aided harmonies on “Eyepennies” before I knew who PJ Harvey was (despite the generic indie rock lyrics and generic chords); hearing him squeal “I wanna fuck a car” and “I wanna be a stupid and shallow motherfucker now / I wanna be a tough skinned bitch but I don’t know how” on “Pig” before I had heard a single Neil Young song consciously; the demented circus of “Dog Door” before I heard a single Tom Waits song; the whisper-singing of “Homecoming Queen” before I knew who Elliott Smith was. Shit, I heard Dark Night of the Soul, his vaguely underrated collaboration with Danger Mouse, the Flaming Lips, Gruff Rhys, Jason Lytle, Frank Black, Iggy Pop and David Lynch (among others) and later discovered Danger Mouse, the Flaming Lips, Super Furry Animals, Grandaddy, the Pixies and the Stooges from there (years before I finally saw a David Lynch film). I remember learning the absurdly easy “Eyepennies” on piano and “Homecoming Queen” on acoustic guitar. And I still think of shielded melancholy of It’s a Wonderful Life and diverse Dark Night of the Soul fondly (no coincidence that the best Sparklehorse albums are the ones with the most features). Yet, I’ve never cared about this one, despite giving it many chances over the past eight years and despite wanting to because the cover reminded me of either Stephen King’s best, second-best or third-best book (It, of course, and a cookie for whoever gets the other two). “Someday I Will Treat You Good” is a delight, from how it sounds like a weak radio transmission at the start before clarity’s gained and the volume’s blasted up, and the most anthemic song in a mostly anemic artist’s discography (compare to other loud one, “Tears On Fresh Fruit”). But that’s basically all this album has to offer. Elsewhere, plodding drums marring both “Saturday” and “Sad and Beautiful World” which doesn’t earn it quoting “Pale Blue Eyes” (skip straight to “It’s a Wonderful Life” and don’t look back); “Gasoline Horseys” is a sadsack strumalong (and indeed, a second guitar joins in halfway through) that’s emblematic of a lot of the album. The hammer-chime behind the hook of “Hammering the Cramps” could have been potent, but it has to deal with annoying panning elsewhere (a.k.a. easiest way of making your shit seem psychedelic); “Heart of Darkness” has a notable bass, but it’s undercooked, with the guitars-as-strings just buzzing around. And though he and Elliott Smith went to the same singing school, Smith was a much better lyricist: Sparklehorse mostly hides behind ironic shields but singing them sincerely (eugh) and a lot of imagery that I’m sure even he didn’t know why he was evoking (“Horses’ teeth”; “Gasoline horses will take us away”). Got a sad story, though. Vic Chestnutt too, who also released an album that same year (and worked with Linkous).

Sparklehorse – It’s a Wonderful Life (2001) – B

Up until this point, his most polished album. It’s also his saddest, slowest and most conventional and his best solo (operative) album. Hard to convince anyone who wants a left of the dial anthem like “Someday I Will Treat You Good” or “Happy Man”; the loudest this album gets are on the fuzzed out “Piano Fire” and the industrial oddity of “Dog Door” (later available on Tom Waits’ Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards), and even then, the loudness is subdued or … odd. And I know my score nowadays ain’t exactly rosy, but I used to love this album back when I first heard it, my eyes watery to the way Linkous sings the album’s title the way he does (with a frailty that surpasses Elliott Smith) on the title track (in waltz-time), or finding shelter in the tune of “Gold Day” and “Eyepennies” (also in waltz-time). But, while Linkous’ depression was obviously very real, other than his voice, he didn’t have much way of communicating it. By which, I mean, his poetry ain’t worth a damn (and it’s always been the case): “I’m the dog that ate / Your birthday cake”; “At sunrise the monkeys will fly / And leave me with pennies in my eyes”; the album’s littered with these animal imagery that doesn’t mean anything to anyone other than Linkous. (Smith, by comparison, was much more direct about his plight.) But some of the album is really thoughtfully textured (especially PJ Harvey’s harmonies on “Piano Fire”, the piano on “Sea of Teeth”, the train-like motion in the title track), and the only bad parts are the now-dated drums (ie. “Apple Bed”; “Comfort Me”) that were all the range around the same time. The release I have pads things out with more sad and slow stuff that’s unnecessary (“Devil’s New” and “Morning Hollow”); one of the reasons why this one’s better than the more popular preceding albums is because of how concise it was.

Sparklehorse – Distorted Ghost EP (2000) – C+

An alternative version of one of the three best songs from his third-best album, which does the same shifting-into-focus trick as “Someday I Will Treat You Good”, padded out by unremarkable live selections (including one that lazily smashes “Happy Man” with one of the other best songs) and a total throwaway in “Waiting For Nothing” (taking his whisper-singing to the next level by making them near inaudible). The other two songs, including another Daniel Johnston cover, could’ve been slotted on Good Morning Spider instead of some of the filler tracks, but they’re not worth looking for this package. Just wait ’til they re-issue that album with this one tagged alone for the ride.

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4 responses to “3 Album Reviews: Sparklehorse

  1. Strangely enough I was talking about Sparklehorse just the other day. I’m a big fan of pretty much everything, though I can understand why folks might find them inaccessible. I guess it’s like most things in that it depends when you discover them, as folks I know point to stuff that’s came since as being better examples of that lo-fi thing they had going on. I would say your reviews are fair, though I think both albums are deserving of higher marks. But maybe there’s just something there that resonated with me that elevated them that wee bit higher. I dunno.

    • If you caught me rating them 9 years ago, I would’ve given those albums a B and A-. I have a huge problem with Linkous’ lyrics, though he’s got a special case where you can empathize with his voice quite easily.

      Been thinking about them a lot since Pitchfork gave a glowing write-up to Good Morning Spider.

  2. Not one I ever got to but, despite the rankings of these three not exceeding a B, all of the names you dropped and the way you described the music makes me want to dig into this artist! Thanks!

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