Although Mark Linkous, lead singer of Sparklehorse, lives in a secluded farmhouse in Virginia and has a penchant for wearing white Stetsons onstage, the group is considerably better known in Europe than in the U.S. Portuguese, French, German and British web sites lauding the band's first album Viva dixie submarine transmission plot and its latest effort, Good Morning Spider, attest to this. They have toured Europe successfully, and Spider has been rated album of the year for 1998 by The London Sunday Times, also muscling its way into Top Ten lists of various magazines. The show last weekend was part of the band's effort to better acquaint America with its music.
Sparklehorse is often compared to past tour-mate Radiohead, and indeed their music shares with that of the British band a pervasive mood of alienation and apathy as well as layers of sheer melodic beauty. Moreover, Linkous fiddles with synthesizers onstage almost as much as Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead does. However, the group acknowledges significant folk and country elements. This blending of styles makes for a crop of inventive songs wrapped around haunted, absorbing melodies which set Sparklehorse aside.
Too bad that few people packed into the Middle East cared about the music. Sadly, while a ring of fans crowded near the stage and listened raptly, many toward the back seemed to have paid their $8 with no idea of who was playing. These indifferent spectators hovered near the bar, marring with a loud conversational buzz what otherwise would have been a near flawless set of achingly good music. In its albums, Sparklehorse envelopes songs within a multi-layered blanket of sound through its continual use of synthesizers and multiple instruments. Gratifyingly, the heavy touring has been worthwhile, and the small band is able to recreate live this intricate wall of sound.
At the center of it all was Linkous' commanding presence. Tall and dark, vaguely menacing, he has a voice that sounds incongruously sweet and vulnerable as he whispers childlike rhymes, and becomes outwardly chilling and disquieting when he shouts them into the microphone. As he warmed to the crowd, Linkous occasionally cracked a smile--or did until the talking became disruptive during the quieter songs. The buzz continued unabated as he stood, eyes closed, crooning the poignant lyrics. After that, he growled without looking up: "You can talk as much as you want during this one--it doesn't even fucking matter,” then proceeded to rock out for a blistering five minutes. The noise died down temporarily, but it became apparent that many were not paying attention. Considering how hard the band has worked to continue making music, the behavior of those at the back must have been especially grating to the singer.
Linkous has a history of depression which severe medical problems have exacerbated. In 1996, the singer overdosed on Valium and antidepressants, and collapsed on a bathroom floor in London. When he was found, his legs had been pinned under him for 14 hours, cutting off circulation completely. An initial attempt to straighten them triggered a cardiac arrest, and Linkous was declared clinically dead for two minutes. Although he was revived and numerous operations to save his legs were ultimately successful, recovery has been slow and painful. He was confined to a wheelchair for six months and still wears leg braces.
People should have listened on Friday not out of pity for Linkous's painful past however, but because of the talent they were fortunate to hear. His harsh personal experiences come across in the quiet desperation in his songs, but he does not whine. Instead, he crafts silvery plaintive ballads and shouts distortedly through loud, always oddly melodious numbers. Linkous does not aim to please. Like most uncompromising music, his is not instantly accessible, and Sparklehorse songs gain much from the attentive listening that many at the Middle East did not attempt. During "Junebug," a hushed, plaintive encore, the dim roar at the back was almost as loud as Linkous's voice.
After that, and despite fans' entreaties, the band did not come back out a second time, which is lamentable. Bands as good and full of promise as Sparklehorse are rare in America or elsewhere, and it is regrettable those drinking at the back did not make the effort to listen.