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Sparklehorse


The brainchild of multi-talented singer/songwriter, Mark Linkous (born Frederick Mark Linkous, September 9, 1962, Arlington, Virginia), the SPARKLEHORSE collective didn’t quite set the lo-fi/country-rawk scene alight – but they damn well could’ve, would’ve, should’ve, with a bit of luck and God on their side. And from his team’s dream-pop debut in 1995, to his career-claudicant swan song in 2009/2010; alongside left-field producer/artist DANGER MOUSE, miserabilist Mark had authored several sublime songs worthy of a better fate.
SPARKLEHORSE were formed in Richmond, Virginia, in the early days of 1995. Erstwhile DANCING HOODS member Linkous could only wait in the wings for his chance to shine within his own song structures for the power-pop combo. However, it was lead singer/guitarist Bob Bortnick who fronted the New York-based, two-album quartet on 1985’s `12 Jealous Roses’ and 1988’s `Hallelujah Anyway’. An alternative to The REPLACEMENTS, the 4-piece enjoyed good reviews for their debut, although their long-awaited follow-up – featuring Linkous’ lead vocals on a cover of LEONARD COHEN’s `Diamonds In The Mine’ – fell short of expectations.
Mark would return home to form The Johnson Family, which duly developed into the equally fruitless Salt Chunk Mary.
Enter SPARKLEHORSE, a loose-knit outfit consisting of Linkous (lead vocals, guitars, tapes), Armstead Welleford (bass), Johnny Hott (drum); with former CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN and CRACKER kingpin David Charles/Lowery (producer/acoustic guitar) in tow. The Marblehead, Massachusetts based independent, Slow River Records (run by George Howard), offered SPARKLEHORSE a starting point for the combo’s first two outings: `Spirit Ditch’ (b/w `Waiting For Nothing’ and `Hammering The Cramps’ (b/w `Too Late’); note that the `Chords I’ve Known’ EP was issued a year later.
Securing a major deal with Capitol Records, and adding guests Bob Rupe (bass), Paul Watson (guitar), Mike Lucas (pedal steel) and David Bush (drums), to flesh out their impending debut set, Linkous and Co looked forward to support dates with label mates RADIOHEAD. The album in question, the long-winded VIVADIXIESUBMARINETRANSMISSIONPLOT {*9} was given the green light in August 1995. Import copies of the aforesaid Slow River platters must’ve filtered though to the UK public, and such was the demand that the tongue-twisting record was belatedly dispatched on British shores the following May. It peaked at No.58 in its first week, possibly on the strength of ones-that-got-away singles, `Someday I Will Treat You Good’ and the aforesaid classic re-tread of `Hammering The Cramps’. Determinedly lo-fi, melancholic and cosmic, characterised by Linkous’s cool catatonic vocals, comparisons to NEIL YOUNG, LOU REED and AFGHAN WHIGS, made songs such as `Homecoming Queen’, `Weird Sisters’, `Most Beautiful Widow In Town’, the 7-minute `Cow’, and third single, `Rainmaker’ (a minor UK hit), an instant triumph with the critics.
Linkous had now settled the band around Scott Minor, Paul Watson and Scott Fitzsimmons. A former heroin addict and pill-popper, the main man’s health was almost the end of him when he collapsed with a heart attack; in the process badly damaging his legs. Mark was consequently confined to a wheelchair for three months following the group’s live UK debut.
When SPARKLEHORSE eventually resurfaced in 1998 with the acclaimed GOOD MORNING SPIDER {*8}, several critics suggested that Linkous’ near-death experience was perhaps a key factor in the vitality of the music. A record of strange beauty, the UK Top 30 entry was segued from distorted sample-driven noise to passages of forlorn majesty (e.g. `Painbirds’, `Maria’s Little Elbows’ and `Sick Of Goodbyes’), as Mark sang his dischordant blues against a lonely acoustic strum. Along with the likes of WILL OLDHAM, BECK or SMOG/BILL CALLAHAN, Linkous had become an unlikely figurehead for the lo-fi Americana scene as SPARKLEHORSE pushed the genre’s boundaries, while others were content to recycle.
While no self-respecting SPARKLEHORSE aficionado would take the title “too” literally, album three IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (2001) {*8} saw at least some sunshine straining at the wonderfully smoldering edges of mark’s stained velvet curtain of sound. Reportedly recorded without the aid of stimulants, the UK Top 50 record found a clearer-headed Linkous getting chummy with the likes of MERCURY REV’s David Fridmann, PJ HARVEY (for `Piano Fire’), The CARDIGANS’ Nina Persson (on `Gold Day’ and `Little Fat Baby’), and even TOM WAITS (for the track `Dog Door’).
On the back of producing DANIEL JOHNSTON’s `Fear Yourself’ album in 2003, Linkous’s ever-widening SPARKLEHORSE collective grew larger in scope to the one that started out on their journey back in the mid-90s. Astralwerks Records (in Mark’s austere homeland of America) had now taken up the slack for fourth album, DREAMT FOR LIGHT YEARS IN THE BELLY OF A MOUNTAIN (2006) {*7}. If the ELO-meets-“Sgt.Pepper”-ish opener, `Don’t Take My Sunshine Away’, was anything to go by, then the remainder of the set was particularly FLAMING LIPS in cohesion (drummer Steven Drozd in attendance); due in no small part to co-production values of Fridmann and DANGER MOUSE. Said to be a lengthy leftover from his previous record, `Morning Hollow’ was another to feature TOM WAITS, whilst best bits came via `Knives Of Summertime’, `Shade And Honey’ (from the “Laurel Canyon” movie OST), and `Some Sweet Day’.
An ambitious project with DANGER MOUSE was put on hold for a time to allow legal wrangles to be smoothed over. In the meantime, keen to get back on track a little quicker than usual, a collaborative session, recorded in ’07 alongside (Christian) FENNESZ, made its appearance in 2009. Issued only in the Netherlands, IN THE FISHTANK 15 {*6} was Mark’s deep sea dive into the world of experimental noise-rock (e.g. `NC Bongo Buddy’ clocked in a 11 minutes), though long-time fans were losing patience.
The aforesaid DANGER MOUSE recordings that underlined the presence of filmmaker David Lynch, and featured singing cast contributions from The FLAMING LIPS, James Mercer (of The SHINS), JASON LYTLE, JULIAN CASABLANCAS, IGGY POP, Nina Persson, FRANK BLACK, GRUFF RHYS, SUZANNE VEGA, Scott Spillane (of The GERBILS), and the soon-to-be-deceased VIC CHESNUTT, had been unfortunately leaked to the media at the tail-end of 2009. In the meantime, Linkous had upped sticks to Hayesville, North Carolina, and was said to be nearing completion of a fresh SPARKLEHORSE album when, while visiting friends in Knoxville, Tennessee, on March 6, 2010, he tragically took his life by shooting himself in the chest with a rifle.
Ironically, the aforesaid multi-starred effort by DANGER MOUSE and SPARKLEHORSE, DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL {*7}, hit the UK (and US!) charts when finally released by Capitol Records in July 2010. Whether Mark would’ve approved of the final masters was a matter of conjecture, though fans of indie-rock in general could take solace in the widescreen spectrum of individuals that graced everything from `Revenge’ and `Just War’ to `Angel’s Harp’ and `Grim Augury’ (see discography for further details). And whether the tribute-like set was a fitting epilogue to Mark’s career, that was indeed a moot point for fans to ponder.
© MC Strong 1998-2003/GRD series // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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