Sparklehorse, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, 1995

Let’s start with a quote from Tim Jonze of the Guardian, written as obituary for Linkous when he took his own life in March 2010. “The genius of Mark Linkous … was to transform the twisted and cruel into the tender and transcendent.”

My history with Sparklehorse: Let’s say love is the flip side of hate, and they meet at a tipping point. Now, where The Eels push me over that point into loathing, Sparklehorse stay just on the right side. The Eels aren’t a bad point of comparison for Sparklehorse. Both bands seem to exist as pseudonyms for their miserabilist, multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter front men called Mark. And both have a strong nineties sound about them – a soft/loud grunge thing, but with a clean side as well. But I found those early Eels albums nauseatingly self-obsessed, Mark Everett always coming across as some kind of sadsack attention-seeking wannabe suicide living under the existential shadow of Kurt Cobain. Mark Linkous on the other hand – er…finally did it, and while I wouldn’t like to match his tragic demise to his art in any way, he clearly had issues as evidenced by the nutty brilliance and schizoid fragility of his music. It’s either white noise or sweet tender beauty or sweetwhitetendernoisebeauty. Linkous uses a lo-fi aesthetic to record melodic songs with oddball lyrics about horses and nails and babies and birds and bad dreams. The result is a surrealistic, nightmarish, poppy, post-modern bricolage. The mashed together words of this album’s title sum it up nicely because if ever there was a genre called Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot music, this was it.

When I started re-playing Vivadixie for the first time in years, I found it much better than I’d remembered. I’d always had this notion of it as difficult music which it can be if your ears aren’t accustomed to abrasive noise. But hearing it again I see it’s not at all hard on the ears. And the whole thing ties together aesthetically as one messed up artistic statement, which may have nihilistic undertones. Enough. Bumstead, set the horse to waterwheel motion.

Homecoming Queen…is a great opener. Sparse arpeggio figures wind around a crisp beautiful acoustic guitar sound. Linkous’s voice is delicate and close mic’ed. He quotes Shakespeare: “A horse / A horse / My kingdom for a horse” = the desperate need for something trivial, “rattling on magnetic fields,” using up a box of sparklers before they decay. Almost none of the lyrics here make literal sense. And yet, this is a beautiful song. Linkous starts metaphoricizing on decay. The chorus “Homecoming Queen” repeats. Something very creepy going on there, disturbing. “Teeth what was sharp / Ground down and down / A crooked spine becoming more brittle.”  We might observe early on then that something is not right in the state of Mark. But wait, what’s that weird carnival sound in the background? Despite the lovely melody, you can tell pretty much from here it’s gonna get weird.  Oh, and look at the title of the next song.

Weird Sistersexhibits the first signs of a drumbeat but it’s just as slow as ‘Homecoming Queen.’ “The parasites will love you when you’re dead / La la la la / Hiding all the rattles in the bed / La la la la la.” This song quotes Creedence Clearwater Revival, nightmare visions, dead bodies infested with parasites, a girl with fire in her hair; you know, the usual flotsam of neurosis. Things are not looking good for Linkous. But this is not drug music. It might be the music of a guy who’s fighting convention or perhaps Linkous is trying to make sense to himself. “A dark horse fell upon me / Wolves and fleas / La la la la la la / Coming crawling in with bulging eyes / Now I can see / There’s a bad moon on the rise.” The song is mostly memorable for its lyrics, the music itself being a little bog-standard.

850 Double Pumper Holley…starts off with a field recording of someone reciting parts for carburetor kits and then bass guitars; there might be a connection. And that’s all this track is.

Rainmaker…is more of a full-bodied song. Simple melody, lo-fi sound. Opens with a feedback-laden chord. That stops, drumbeat kicks in. Noisy and melodic. Heightened vocal effect – the old megaphone effect – not yelled like Black Francis, but trebly, with bold, driving electric guitar. It’s not easy to catch all the lyrics. Here, in the oft repeated chorus, the “Rainmaker’s coming.” Why? “To soak us with water,” of course. The rainmaker comes in different guises—a mist, a scientist, or the retarded son of an old woman with seven fingers on each hand. He might be relaxing though, in a ‘spirit ditch,’ which I believe is the title of the next song.

Spirit Ditchthis fits the mould of a ‘sort’ or ‘type’ of Sparklehorse song – acoustic and shimmery, quiet and slow, with a tender, shaky, whispery, falsetto vocal. Strange lyrics: “I woke up in a burnt out basement / Sleeping with metal hands / In a spirit ditch.” Linkous wants his records back, talks to the owls, hears horse laughter, would live in a slide trombone if he had a home, but continues to wake up in a burned out basement sleeping with metal hands in a spirit ditch. Then we hear an answerphone message from his mum reminiscing on when he was a kid. He seems stuck in a horrible rut he can’t escape. I can’t explain why, but I love this song. Beautiful slow tune. Very quiet, delicate, sad kind of vocal.

Tears on Fresh Fruit…a noisy lo-fi dirgey number, distorted guitars, again, a very nineties sound. Really weird vocals – he’s put his voice through some device so he sounds like a kid, like a little punk girl or something. Kind of punky, driving splintered music. A sad song about watching her tears fall on fresh fruit and not being able to do anything about it. “Just when you’ve found your way to the boiler room / They come and dig you out / With picks and shovels and acetylene torches.” Makes me think of lines from ‘Daddy,’ the poem by Sylvia Plath where she refers to her suicide attempt; “They pulled me out of the sack / And they stuck me together with glue.” It’s mostly the vocals on these songs that make them so appealing. Even on the noisier ones, Linkous sounds fractured, fragile, brittle, sorry, defiant.

Saturday…is another sort of quiet-but-not sounding song with that low falsetto whispery thing. Pleasant song, strummed acoustic guitar. In this song Linkous is excited about Saturdays because that’s when he gets to see ‘you’. He enumerates a bunch of things that ‘you’ are. In the meantime he’ll play great keyboards of horses’ teeth, because hey, what else is there to do? Brilliantly twisted stuff. Lovely tune evocative of daydreaming away your time on Saturdays when you were a kid. This is probably one of my favourite songs on Side One after ‘Spirit Ditch.’

Cow…this time we have “Saint of barges / Queen of nails / Sparkling drumsets / Murders of crows.”  Then we get “Metal teeth of carousels / Lighting cigars on electric chairs” while “Buildings are rooks / Nature’s a vice / Rattle of diesels / Snakes eating their own tails” and then the repeated line “Pretty girl / Milkin’ a cow / Oh yeah.” One of the longest songs here. Quite a nice soundscape conjured up by various percussion with an insistently strummed guitar to deliver a nice mellow tune. Good stuff.

Little Bastard Choo Choo…that last track kind of merges into this one which starts off with some musique concrete. Various things being banged to sound like a lo-fi alternative train for about 40 seconds.

I should pause and make comment. So far I haven’t understood a  single word at the literal level but I think I get some kind of picture. The world’s full of strangeness, sadness, ugliness and beauty. Sometimes each of these things can affect your emotions but in different ways so that one time it’ll have you feeling up and other times really down. This chaotic uncertain element of life is mostly really hard to deal with, so our coping mechanism shall be to just record it as we hear it. Butterflies emerge. And horses.

Hammering the Crampswas one of the singles. Plodding drumbeat, loud distorted guitars. Consists mostly of the words “Hammering the cramps” after asking a little dog and a little car if they can fly. It’s really catchy and the sound is hard to describe but it sounds great. Megaphone-style vocals. Really big clean flanged electric guitar sound with various effects. Quite simple stuff, but effective. Sort of just repeats the same idea quite a bit, then we get a middle section where the vocal goes really wobbly. Various sounds drop out and are added back in the mix to create texture. Immensely enjoyable. What are the cramps? The rock band?

Most Beautiful Widow in Town…uses acoustic guitar, but always that quite rich sound. You even hear Linkous sing ‘properly’ in this song. By that I mean, sans effects. Pitch-wise, he’s probably not a brilliant singer but then he is, you see, because he doesn’t care, if you get my drift. Like Jeff Mangam in Neutral Milk Hotel. Great vocals because they waver about trying to stay in key. This is real closely mic’ed stuff. A few ‘p’ puffs of his breath on the mic. Simple strummed guitar supports a sad lyric about a widow. He dreams of her with her mother present. Then tries to avoid looking at her wedding portrait on the wall where she’s wearing a smile “that would be too painful to look upon.” Reminds me of Smog’s Red Apple Falls a bit. “I bet you are the most beautiful widow in town.” Lovely.

Heart of Darkness…is a dark little song that sounds mean-minded as if he’s wishing the horror of hell on some girl he’s no longer with. It contains strange sounds, a weird eerie kind of pedal steel guitar sound and bass and back to the whispery high vocal style. “Oh yeah, I’ve / Got a heart / Of darkness.” No effects on his vocal here either. The pedal steel effect is great. What is this – nineties freak-country-folk?

Ballad of a Cold Lost Marble…is calculated weirdness. A repeatedly bashed drum. Distorted guitar behind that. An electronic version of the sound of someone trying to rip vinyl car seat covering with their bare hands. A radio comes on, distortion, blat. Freaky man.

Someday I Will Treat You Good…is the big pop number. Noisy but catchy. Really big clear lo-fi kind of sound. I haven’t listened to this kind of music for a long time but I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Bit like my love for those old lo-fi Lou Barlow albums. This is really scratchy kind of stuff, but it’s big power chords at the same time, not dissimilar perhaps to Bakesale-era Sebadoh, only more melodic. Anyway, chorus: “I left my baby on the side of the highway / She just couldn’t see things my way,” and that leads to the chorus line: “Someday I will treat you good.” Is this a continuation of the relationship from the previous song? He returns to the topic of decay; “Everything that’s made is made to de—cay,” which we first heard in ‘Homecoming Queen.’ Neatest wacko lyric: “The beautiful ones are always crazy / She’s whispering like Morticia now.”

Sad And Beautiful World…almost a parody of ‘whispery falsetto.’ “Sometimes I get so upset / Sometimes you just make me mad.” He is actually whispering this one, in falsetto, if such a thing is possible. Okay, so many of these songs are similar to this one. A slight tune, the music just kind of repeats, a guitar figure, a nicely winding pedal steel in the background. Lyrics here are pretty dull. “It’s a sad and beautiful world sometimes / It’s a sad and …” etc. But the dulcet vocal is captivating.

Gasoline Horseys…more lo-fi stuff. Scratchy static. Sounds like an old radio. Just voice and guitar. Oh, but that fades away and the song comes on really loud in a close mic’ed kind of way. Bass, acoustic guitar and vocal. Right up loud in your face. “The flowers of evil you left at my door / Set ’em in a broken glass and tasted my own blood.” Yessir. So Gasoline Horseys are cars that “Charge forth with fiery manes / And bellies full of clocks / Four ton deaf and dumb.” Ugly imagery contrasted with the beautiful. Indeed an album of contrasts.

Waiting For Nothing…remember when the hidden track was popular? Rewind the CD to zero and find the secret track. Or add 30 minutes of silence at the end of your album and then throw a real loud noisy track on the end just when the listener’s fallen asleep? Not hidden on vinyl of course. So anyway, this is a weaker devil, guitar, drum, feathery vocal. “I’m waiting for nothing” etc.

There are an awful lot of people who just loooove this album. I too am a fan. It is indeed a most interesting affair and a great debut record. It grows on you in leaps and bounds. Linkous would continue this lo-fi musical alchemy on his follow-up Good Morning Spider.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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