Sparklehorse - It's A Wonderful Life

Year of Release: 2001
Label: Capitol/EMI
Catalog Number: 7 243 5 25616 29
Format: CD
Total Time: 60:31:00

When I got the December issue of Q Magazine in my hands I was amazed at how many times the word "progressive" kept creeping in. Not only did the wonderful legs of PJ Harvey on the cover make my day, but no fewer than four new bands got the word prog or symphonic rock glued on top of their reviews. For Elbow's Asleep In The Back they wrote: "prog gets the bedsit blues" and "prog without the solos." Mercury Rev was described as "symphonic rock and faux Disney tunes." Muse's Origin Of Symmetry got the "prog goes the weasel" label and also "a bombastic blend of the baroque and bawdy" description, whilst Tool were simply regarded as being "prog-metallers" or the "metal Radiohead." Hey and we're not even talking Starsailor or Turin Brakes here. So it looks like were heading towards the right track be it for the fact that there still is a reasonable difference between Spock's Beard and Radiohead, between Flower Kings and Beta Band. So let's just turn towards Sparklehorse to see what those mellotrons have been up to!

From the first chords of "It's A Wonderful Life" onwards you can clearly hear that there will be a lot of Beatles references hidden in Sparklehorse's music. In fact this tune could easily be placed on the famous White Album, although its sound is combined with some strong Radiohead references. "Gold Day" is the first song that strongly introduces the superb sound of the mellotron, enhancing the Beatles flavour even more. If one says Beatles one thinks of the sixties and that's exactly the period of time "Piano Fire" refers to by means of a psychedelic atmosphere, acoustic guitars, distorted guitar and deformed vocals all blending together as if it were an audio soup. With a rhythm that holds the middle between a military rhythm and a minimal approach, Mark Lindow's whispering vocals sounds as if it's telling a story during "Sea Of Teeth."

By means of their minimal arrangements Sparklehorse often rubs shoulders with the "unplugged" mentality as is apparent during "Apple Bed." Here the band gets the guest treatment from Cardigans singer extraordinaire Nina Persson who adds her distinctive voice. A rather primitive sounding drum machine forms the backbone of this rather plain yet effective song, full of drama accentuated by real violin and cello. The inclusion of those classical instruments is as if a door is opened, letting new influences in. Strange as it may seem but by adding a richer arrangement one would almost certainly withdraw the power of the song, "more with less" so to speak. Although sometimes the guitars sound very loud as in "King Of Nails," the vocals remain soft and almost whispering at times. "Eyepennies" introduces Polly Jean Harvey and John Parish into the mix, delivering a jazzy song that breathes the atmosphere of the famous Ronnie Scott's Club in London, but could also come from the vaults of Neil Young.

"Dog Door" is the kind of weirdness one would associate with Captain Beefheart or Zita Swoon . To enhance that weird feeling none other than Tom Waits has been drafted in to leave behind his exclusive stamp. Sparklehorse is at its very best not in the fierce songs that have been mainly created from behind the mixing console, but instead in the intimacy of their rather ambient environment. A nice example of the latter can be found in "More Yellow Birds," which to my ears sound a little like Elvis Costello teaming up with the Brodsky Quartet, the violin even adding a little country flavour to the song. More American roots creep in during "Comfort Me" when pedal steel is introduced, blending nicely with the string section and the rather dated sounding drum machine in the intro. Although remaining loyal to the general atmosphere of the album, this song nevertheless holds possibilities to be edited into a nice single with lots of airplay possibilities. The album closes with "Babies On The Sun," probably the most Radiohead-like song on the entire album. Again mellotron proves to be the main ingredient whilst a lot of studio tricks have been incorporated in order to give its unlogical sound. In fact, it sounds like a machine doing its repetitive rounds and giving away the sounds of wear it has amassed over the years, a "rusty" sound if you like. Then the song stops after a good 4 minutes whilst the CD-player indicates there still is over 10 minutes of material waiting. As in so many cases there is absolutely nothing for several minutes before a guitar kicks in with a little more than seven minutes to go. Reversed guitar sounds add to the mysterious sound, which to me holds the same atmosphere as a funeral procession. Certainly no flowers please!

If this is the future of prog then I certainlty have my doubts. If this is the future of pop however then some nice things are still on the cards. Imagine a cross between Radiohead and Neil Young and you're halfway through the unexpected nature of Sparklehorse. Audio equestrianism anyone?

[In March 2010, Mark Linkow took his own life -ed.]

It's A Wonderful Life (2:58) / Gold Day (4:13) / Piano Fire (2:41) / Sea Of Teeth (4:27) / Apple Bed (4:54) / King Of Nails (4:14) / Eyepennies (4:59) / Dog Door (2:42) / More Yellow Birds (4:52) / Little Fat Baby (3:39) / Comfort Me (5:01) / Babies On The Sun (4:37)

Mark Linkow - vocals, optigon, orchestron, chamberlin, sampler, guitar, percussion
Dave Fridmann - bass, Wurlitzer piano, mellotron
Scott Minor - drums, orchestron, electronic birds

Guests :

Nina Persson - voice
Adrian Uttey - Dictaphone
John Parish - bass, Casio, piano
Bob Rupe - bass
Jane Scarpantoni - cello
Joan Wasser - violin
Sophie Michelitsianos - voice, bass
Polly Jean Harvey - voice, guitar
Tom Waits - voice, weird things
Miguel Rodriguez - drums
Alan Weatherhead - orchestron, mellotron, chamberlin, lap steel guitar
Margaret White - bass, violin

Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot (1995)
Good Morning Spider (1998)
It's A Wonderful Life (2001)
Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain (2006)
Dark Night Of The Soul (w/Danger Mouse) (2009) (CDR, no official release)
In The Fishtank (w/Fennesz) (2009)

Genre: Rock

Origin US

Added: February 23rd 2002
Reviewer: John "Bobo" Bollenberg

Artist website:
Hits: 770
Language: english


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