Sparklehorse’s “Wonderful Life” plus guest artists

Mike Schoeck

Mark Linkous has enough rustic and gothic anecdotes, tree scratches, off beat chimes, synthesized strings and a gang of cronies that are just the veterans to help pull Washing Irving or E.A. Poe from the ground. “It’s A Wonderful Life” is Sparklehorse’s third album since Linkous and his bandmates signed with Capitol Records in 1995, released in early September.
The band’s success runs along the same gritty track between such groups as the Eels, Manic Street Preachers, and Grandaddy. Linkous doesn’t care if you get whacked in the face by tree branches of lo-fi indie rock twined in with gothic tones while journeying through his “Wonderful Life” in wooded Virginia.
He is “the dog that ate your birthday cake” and “a bog with poison frogs” while he solemnly concludes “it’s a wonderful life” on the opening track. The scratchy and sampling-ridden precursor is segued into the first rock track, “Gold Day,” which features the voice of the Cardigans’ Nina Persson amid the electronic bird noises and chiming lo-fi sway. “Gold Day” plus five of “Wonderful Life” tracks were recorded at Linkous’ favored Tarbox Road Studios in New York. The remainder was recorded at his basement Static King studio in Virginia as well a select few other locations in the state and in California and Spain. This proves that time makes the difference in between long-anticipated releases, especially when guest musicians offer their exotic studio space.
Speaking of the latter, “Piano Fire” and “Eyepennies” were recorded with PJ Harvey and longtime companion John Parish at the dynamic pair’s Spanish studio. The accomplished singer-songwriter and producer accompanied Linkous, drummer Scott Minor and bassist Dave Fridmann. Harvey adds her brooding, sensual alto voice along with guitar and piano while Parish produces the somber two and adds a string bass and piano layer.
Before you fall too hard into the lo-fi goth samples and somber catches of the band’s first several tracks, Mark Linkous introduces a peculiar friend, Tom Waits. The blues-roots rasp breaks through the “Dog Door” with gutsy repercussion and rusting metal instruments. Linkous splices in samples of a backwards spoken midget voice slow enough that it gives a catatonic sound like the scrape of the reaper’s pitchfork against solid wall.
“Little Fat Baby” and “Comfort” are two outstanding tracks that draw on alt-country indie rock hoots of bands like Wilco, the Jayhawks, and more modern quasi-electronic, part indie bands Manic Street Preachers, Grandaddy, and the Eels. Linkous’ voice is distinct enough as Mr. E’s from the Eels and isn’t as nasally imbalanced at times like the aging Neil Young. Linkous’ “Wonderful Life” ranks up among the digitally-looped goth lounge, alternative-country, and barstool blues innuendos of his cohorts Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, John Parish, and Nina Persson.
Pick up “Wonderful Life” if you tire yourself with ordinary rock. Linkous provides a rustic soundtrack for a gothic hike out in the woods with the likes of 19th Century story-tellers.

Grade: A-