Sparklehorse


Douglas Wolk
February 10, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Mark Linkous has taken more than three years to come up with his second full album as Sparklehorse, but cut the guy a little slack: He barely skirted death in a medical disaster in the interim. It's not surprising, then, that "Good Morning Spider" has a persistent subtext of the kind of terror and pain that can only be explained from behind masks. Linkous distorts and double-tracks his voice, sings far below or above his natural range, hides simple melodies and instrumentation behind scrims of distortion, then hangs crystalline bell tones on them to contextualize the mess. The cheeriest-sounding song here, the languid, strummy rocker "Sick of Goodbyes," turns out on close examination to be a fevered portrait of a crumbling mind.

The surprising thing is that Linkous manages to communicate the same stressed-out-ness in so many flavors, and sounds like he's having so much fun doing it. The disc moves like a Rube Goldberg device: It's never clear how he's going to get from fuzz-o-phonic bug-out A to mournful waltz-time whisper B to petite quasi-orchestral interlude C, but the sequence ends up working amazingly well. Even when the songs themselves lack distinction, the album's arrangements candy them up craftily. "Happy Man," for instance, runs half its length in ultra-compressed treble -- part of it altogether inaudible beneath shortwave squeals -- before the low end slides into the mix and starts booming away. Linkous sneaks in little salutes to his favorite bands all over the disc: The title of "Maria's Little Elbows" nods to Pavement's "Chesley's Little Wrists," and a few minutes into it he sings a couple of lines from the Velvet Underground's "Candy Says." Ultimately, though, his love for his record collection overwhelms the flashes of innovation on "Good Morning Spider." Too many of Linkous' ideas feel received, and demonstrating his versatility by imitating his heroes isn't enough.

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Adrian Belew
SALAD DAYS | THIRSTY EAR
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BY ANDREW HAMLIN | While perhaps not a singularity like some of his old bosses (David Bowie, Frank Zappa, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Robert Fripp), guitarist Adrian Belew has, parallel to his 20-year career as one of rock's most diligent utility infielders, carved out a body of pop and occasionally not-so-pop songs that unflamboyantly mine the brilliance between genres, the relaxed pleasures of day-to-day life between revolutions. Garnishing tracks from two obscure self-released CDs with live stuff plus odds and ends (for "Return of the Chicken" he twangs, tinkles or honks every melodic instrument in his studio; "Things You Hit With a Stick" cooks percussives with the same recipe), Belew gives a satisfying tour of his universe, which is loony but not sardonic, full of surprising and moving pathos.

From "The Lone Rhinoceros," a zoo animal's lament laid down for, but not picked up by, Ringo Starr, to the cranky ruminations of a "Dinosaur" reduced to bones and oil, it's a world where animals come out looking more noble than people. "Men in Helicopters," sung over a string quartet in the manner of Stevie Wonder's "Village Ghetto Land," hints that fauna, flora and perhaps the Man Upstairs himself might soon strike back against earth rape. "Three of a Perfect Pair," a finger-breaker from Belew's first stint in King Crimson, amazes in its solo-acoustic incarnation as an Argentine audience softly sings along on the bridge. And if you're not big on zoo stories, there's always "The Man in the Moon," a straightforward study of Belew after his father's death, searching for, and finding, his father's face and hands in the rippling water off a broken pier, in the light of the night sky.

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Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt
"TRIO II" | ASYLUM
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-->BY JOE HEIM | When three of pop and country music's purest female vocalists come together for a full-length CD, there are high expectations. After all, for the past quarter-century Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton have each had Grammy-laden careers and, in their own unique ways, captured the attention and deserved admiration of music lovers. Perhaps that's why "Trio II," the most recent effort by this harmonizing threesome, is ultimately a letdown.

To be sure, this much-delayed sequel to "Trio" (1987) has its sublime moments. With Ronstadt singing lead on a cover of the Carter Family's "Lover's Return," the dolorous, old-time beauty of the song provides hints of how good the entire CD might have been. Unfortunately the trio wasn't as judicious with all of its song selections. Only on a few songs -- the Parton-penned "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind," "Blue Train" by Jennifer Kimball and Tom Kimmel and Del McCoury's "I Feel the Blues Movin' In" -- does the strength of the material merit the singers' talents.

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Too often the songs presented here are just this side of boring -- or worse. The trivial "Feels Like Home" is a surprisingly sappy composition by the usually acidic Randy Newman. And of all the Neil Young songs to pick from, "After the Gold Rush" is a woefully uninspired choice (and not helped by questionable updating of the lyrics). On every track on this CD the singing is flawless. But missing is any real emotion or sense that the singers feel a deep connection to the songs. There's a great album to be made by Parton, Ronstadt and Harris. Unfortunately, "Trio II" is not it.

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Various Artists
"RUSHMORE" ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK | ATLANTIC
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-->BY JEFF STARK | In the "Rushmore" soundtrack liner notes, director Wes Anderson says he originally wanted his coming-of-age love story to have an all-Kinks soundtrack. "The Kinks played loud, angry, teenage rock songs, and they wore blazers and ties," he writes. "Our movie is about a teenager who is loud and angry, and he is almost never seen without his blazer and tie." Anderson eventually decided to open the soundtrack up to more British Invasion bands like the Who and the Creation "because they all basically dressed like that."

The director seems coy, and not just because British Invasion bands make up only half the soundtrack. (The other half is later British stuff like John Lennon's excellent everyday love song "Oh Yoko" and Cat Stevens' "Here Comes My Baby," along with wild cards from French crooner Yves Montand and jazz saxophonist Zoot Sims.) Blazers and ties are superficial details. Not one song in "Rushmore" feels perfunctory.

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Turns out the Kinks song, "Nothing in This World Can Stop Me Worrin' Bout That Girl" isn't even loud or angry. It's a broken, obsessive and lonely number about a lying girlfriend and how the singer lost his trust in her. But that's the reason the music in "Rushmore" works so well with the film's story. Anderson's movie shares themes with great rock 'n' roll: schoolboy crushes, unrequited love, class differences, betrayal, open-eyed awe and hurt.

Here, footnotes of rock history like Chad & Jeremy, Unit 4 + 2 and the Faces -- with Ron Wood on vocals -- sing about all of those subjects. Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh adds nine short pieces from the score, heavy with dulcimer chimes and mandolin picks, that glue the record together.

The greatest thing about the "Rushmore" soundtrack is that it sounds like the work of someone who cares about music, someone who ferreted out great forgotten songs instead of plucking choice cuts from best-of compilations or, worse, allowed a monolithic publishing company to tack on a few modern rock hits. (Interesting fact: It's primarily the monolithic publishing companies, not the record labels, who profit when an artist lands a song on a soundtrack or in a commercial.) One gripe: The Rolling Stones' "I am Waiting," a quiet, midtempo ballad from the 1966 record "Aftermath," didn't make it from the film to the CD. It's too bad, because it really does belong here, but you can probably blame it on a monolithic publishing company.

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Douglas Wolk

Douglas Wolk is the author of the books "Reading Comics" and "James Brown's Live at the Apollo," and has contributed to a variety of periodicals, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, and The Believer.

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