Sparklehorse, Good Morning Spider, 1998

Aesthetic-wise Good Morning Spider is pretty much a continuation of where we left off with Vivadixesubmarine. There’s a similar stylistic juxtaposition of various binaries such as soft/loud, sweet/bitter, harsh/dulcet, noise/melody and pain/salve across the course of these seventeen tracks. If there’s one thing Mark Linkous loves to do, it’s smear sonic garbage over a perfectly good pop song and create something quite spectacular.

This is a good thing because Vivadixie was a superb debut which left open such a wide scope of possibility that Good Morning Spider neither sounds derivative of Vivadixie, nor gives the impression that he’s run out of ideas. The possibilities with Sparklehorse are endless, and yet it’s a very distinct sound and style. Nobody else throws out such delirious trash in the post-modern rubbish bin as Mark Linkous.

I guess it’s true to say that the mood here is a little more despondent than the last album. Some critics assumed this was because it was recorded after Linkous spent six months in a wheelchair, although he’s been said to say that most of the songs were written before the accident happened. I only say “a little more despondent” though, because Vivadixie was hardly a joyful frolic through the tulips. Yo, lay down the diamond dude…

Pig…like so many songs here, this starts out as if it’s tuned in from some old radio before the dial finds the right station, the volume goes right up and the song roars into action. But first we get Linkous humming like a four year old child. This is a pretty full on opener, a severe contrast to the first song ‘Homecoming Queen’ off Vivadixie. The tune is really catchy and the lyrics are hilarious—they seem to attack pathetic trivial consumerism, the desire of very shallow people. “I wanna new face right now and I want it bad / I wanna new body that’s strong,” he says, but then throws “I’m a butchered cow” right back at you. And then he ratchets up the sarcasm a notch: “I wanna be a tough-skinned bitch but I don’t know how.” The guitars are pretty full on, distorted to the max and played fast and the whole thing’s so damn catchy you can’t help singing along with the line, “I wanna be a stupid and shallow mutherfucker now,” at your own expense. Certainly a song to put off the timid newcomer to the Sparklehorse camp. Check out the video to this song on Youtube. It’s as if the Blair Witch Project met Jason Voorhees and dressed him up as Charlie Chapman. Freaky stuff.

Painbirds…removes the white noise for something softer, very downcast, a slow morbid thing, but with one of those beautifully exquisite vocal lines and lovely detailed guitar parts. It’s pretty straightforward lyrically—the Painbirds seem to be a metaphor for um, well, pain I guess. And they come every now and then like it’s inevitable, so hey, there’s no use screaming about it. All you can do is resign yourself to it, the sad trauma of which gives this song its understated power. There’s a beautifully twisted little trumpet part here in the instrumental break which totally makes the song; as if it’s the sound of a deeply buried pleasurable kind of pain twisting through your veins. Then there’s this very cool effect where Linkous takes the four lines of lyrics from the first two verses and sings them over top of each other, two voices singing two different lines. “Goddamn it’s so very hot” sung over top of “Spiral down those hateful dears” and “Supposed to come a rain but it’s not” sung over top of “Between our skins and burning spheres.” Way to make a painful depression sound ever so appealing. From here, the rest of Side One just gets more and more teary-eyed.

Saint Mary…is a tribute song to the nurses at St. Mary’s hospital in London where Linkous spent time recovering after a fall where he pinned his legs for several hours and lost the use of them for several months. “Blanket me sweet nurse / And keep me from burnin’ / I must get back to the woods dear girls.” This is another twisted little number, a paean to morphine perhaps. The mood is really melancholy. There’s a pretty cello sound, piano, and delicate notes on the guitar, while the vocal is also super delicate, a close mic’ed Linkous dueting with himself in those whispery falsetto sounds he used to such wondrous effect on Vivadixie. “In the bloody elevator going to the bright theater now,” he sings, as if his consciousness is slipping away, and next he’s tripping out to the anaesthetic, asking, “When does sky turn into space and air into wind?” Oh yes.

Good Morning Spider…is a very short minute long segment with low synth noises sweeping about, while a weird concrete musique thing happens quietly over the top of it.

Sick Of Goodbyes…opens with a neat little funk guitar motif before turning into a great mid-tempo pop rocker layered with cleanly distinct parts. A crisply strummed acoustic guitar, a loud thumpity drumbeat, a shimmering electric guitar, and again Linkous’s voice double-tracked. “Nobody sees you’re on a vampire planet,” he sings, “No one sees you like I do.” And then the song changes gear, the volume ramps up and the insanely catchy chorus comes on, “I’m so sick of goodbyes, goodbyes.” Then we get “The night comes crawling in on all fours / Sucking up my dreams through the floor.” Yeah, so another case of the night nurses-curses. Apart from slight changes in volume between chorus and verse though, the song doesn’t really change much. The beat stays pretty much the same throughout. It’s vaguely reminiscent of something else that I can’t quite place. Nevertheless, great sound, and a very enjoyable melody.

Box Of Stars (Part One)…another very short transitional piece, with lyrics this time. “My bones long to escape and run along the alien expanse to collapse in the heat in a cartoonish heap / To sleep oh sleep.”

Sunshine…acoustic guitar and this flute-dreamy sort of organ sound, and again, these weird murky distorted effects coming in from the left speaker. “I opened my eyes and watched the sunshine.” In terms of aesthetic it’s quite similar to ‘Sick of Goodbyes,’ though quieter, and we’re back to that double tracked whispery falsetto voice, which is the Sparklehorse trademark. He’s got such a sweetly weird girlish voice, which is really one of the most appealing things about these songs. The voice and words are always at odds with each other but in such a brilliant way. That strange organ sound sort of pumps this funny little three chord tune and other variously warbled strings play in the background, while the shuffly effect off in the left speaker never really lets up, and the whole thing is the beautiful sound of distraction. Like it’s constantly pulling your mind away into some unconscious space. That’s what all Sparklehorse songs do I’ve just realized—they mess with your mind. You’re busy paying attention to one thing while something else creeps in at you from the side and the next thing you’re floating away into some strange organ melody, while a disembodied telephone voice adds a few comments and the whole thing sort of cuts you from your umbilical cord, set adrift, alone in space, gettin’ down with the sad tones of the chaotic galaxy…

Chaos Of The Galaxy/Happy Man…is a sort of dreamy continuation of the last track, again disembodied voices. Just a quiet pumping organ thing, and this segues into what I’m guessing is ‘Happy Man’. What we get here is someone fiddling with that radio again, only for a good half of the song this time while the song plays perfectly normal but faintly lo-fi, a background blur, until the song disintegrates completely behind all sorts of twittery and whistly shortwave radio sounds before it finally seems to ‘tune in.’ The distortion disappears, the volume slowly builds and the song comes roaring out of your speakers in full glorious 3D technicolour. It’s quite an effect. “And all I want is to be a happy man.” There’s loud driving guitars thrusting the song forward, sort of back to where we started with the loud noise and pop melody of ‘Pig.’ I read in a few places that Linkous deliberately messed this song up because some record company marketing dick wanted to make this the big radio single. Great story. Low organ blur, and end.

Hey, Joe…references the Beatles in about four different ways. First we got the title (‘Hey Jude’) which goes with the lines, “Hey Joe / Don’t make that sad song / Sadder than it already is.” Then we got the line, “Hey Jack, get back, get yourself together,” which recalls ‘Get Back.’ Next is “Hey Sid / No matter what you did / It can work out,” referencing ‘We Can Work It Out,’ and finally, “Hey George, do your chores, don’t feel sore / I know it’s a lot more / Than just being poor,” which reminds me first of George Harrison, and brings us back round to ‘Hey Jude’ with its rhyme scheme, there in the lines, “Then you can start to make it better.” And if you listen to all the words and imagine Linkous singing to various fragmented versions of himself then you can make pretty good sense out of it, as if it was written as a recovery song. Having said that, ‘Hey Joe’ is a pretty sad song, sounding almost sadder than anything on Side One. The tune is beautiful once again, though this time with record dust static playing all over it, and again, there’s these really neat subterranean sounds of distraction which become integral to the songs once you become familiar with them. Distractions that become abstractions and carry you off into some other altogether not-here, different than there, and before or after, now. “There’s a heaven and there’s a star for you.” That says it all really.

Come On In… “Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray my soul to keep / If I die before I wake / I pray my soul to take.” Okay, so the beat here is like the last song—a strange kind of distorted sound, and the lyric is yet again Linkous back into whispery falsetto mode, and the tune with beautiful little submerged piano notes and vibraphones gives it all a light dreamy effect. Has to be said though that the downer atmosphere sucks all the life out of the song, and yet, it’s such a delicate pretty wee thing you just wanna put an arm around and give it a hug. Probably one of the most lowkey tracks here. The vocal gets fainter and fainter as if he’s trying to lull you to sleep.

Maria’s Little Elbows… “Well I bet Maria’s got an elbow full of lonely.” Lovely crisp acoustic guitars strums, and another high airy close mic’ed vocal – always the sound of intimacy, is Mark Linkous. The chorus: “Loneliness / Loneliness / Loneliness / Oh / Came kicking at my door.” Obligatory horse reference: “Sleeping horses keep eating up your flowers.” Some nicely layered sounds in here making this another lovely dreamy number with a slow beat, backwards effects, sumptuous recording, creating a very downer mood, again. Pleasant enough tune.

Cruel Sun…opens with Linkous sort of yelling megaphone-style, distorted voice, before the song launches into a hard rock beat, with distantly messy guitars. By far the fastest song here, well, except for maybe ‘Pig.’ The lyrics are just short lines of rhyming words, with no obvious meaning. “It’s dried up / and tied up / and fried / Mine eyes / It’s crawling / Befallen / Cruel sun.” Then the song crashes to a halt.

All Night Home…warm feel, quiet, low, slow thumbed strings, very quiet vocal, just high on the edge of his voice, barely there, hard to catch the words except for the chorus which goes “We’re gonna drive / All night home.” Again, you can’t really not like any of these songs, even the least interesting ones such as this are still very pretty and never short of a tune, even if it is very simple. I suppose this is the first time on the album that I’ve become aware of a song that doesn’t really grab me in any way though, like it’s so lowkey it sort of fades into the background, before the weirdness of the next one starts up.

Ghost Of His Smile…and we get Linkous in disembodied distorted voice again saying something almost incomprehensible, and then “He doesn’t get out much these days / But I wouldn’t call him laaaazy … and we thought that he was doin’ all right.” Seems to be about a chap who clearly is not doing all right, given the chorus: “I can’t forget the ghost of his smile.” Another very distorted drumbeat, with backwards hi-hat. Song is awfully catchy yet again, almost too much so. I think there’s a point somewhere about here where the songs sort of blend together a little too much. By that I mean too much of the same sounds, or same aesthetic and the simplicity of the arrangements start to sound repetitive. That’s not to denigrate this song per se, which is really quite good. If this song was on Side One, I’d have been writing these same words about a different song I suppose. I feel like the album needs to challenge you by this point, that’s all. There’s a little too much reliance on the sort of three note piano or vibe melody that, when repeated a few times, gets into your head too easily.

Hundreds Of Sparrows…that exact same aesthetic continues into this song, which again, is yet another pretty tune, with a nice piano line, and the intriguing lyrics, “Every hair on your head is counted / You are worth hundreds of sparrows / The tree you planted has become fecund / With kamikaze hummingbirds.” Nice imagery. And later, “I’m so sorry / My spirit’s rarely in my body.” And what’s it all mean? No idea. One of those lyrical distractions that has you whisked off into Linkous’s dream world bed-head.

Box Of Stars (Part Two)…is just a distorted field of synth sounds, not too busy, not too unlike something by Eluvium, but only lasting thirty seconds.

Junebug…very slow, acoustic guitar strum. “A beautiful woman / She rose / From the smoking waters / Of a lake / With a candle that burned / In each palm / My teeth each sank gently to the floor / Bring me some luck / Little junebug / Your cousins / They’re gods to the seas / The March afternoon / The sun and the moon.” Aiyah, what’s all that then? This is that distraction thing performed at the lyric level instead of musically or sonically. It’s quite sparse, sounding like it could stop at any moment. Tune reminds me a lot of an equally despairing number by Canadian band The Great Lake Swimmers, although this comes at least six years before them. The vocal here is quiet, in that delicate close mic’ed kind of way. This song sort of gets lost on the end, an end song to be sure, drifting…

Click once to expand, again to magnify

Yeah, so while Good Morning Spider is enjoyable from start to finish and successfully makes you question Linkous’s sanity, as always, I can’t help feeling it could have done with a little more variety in terms of style of song. Now that’s a strange thing coming from me, because I’m an albums kind of guy. I love albums that maintain cohesion, an aesthetic that makes an overall statement rather than a set of disparate tracks. But this sort of goes too far in that direction becoming a little bit samey about halfway through Side Two and thus preventing me from really out and out loving it. Perhaps I’ve played it too much in the past year. I spent ages trying to find this on vinyl, only for it to get re-released about a month after I finally landed a copy. Not that I assign points to my commentaries but if I did, I think this is still half a point better than Vivadixie. I’m a much bigger fan of the next album, It’s A Wonderful Life – to be reviewed next.

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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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