The Gross Yields: Sparklehorse 3 – It’s a Wonderful Life

As a fan of movies and music, I am interested in examining the output of directors and musical artists chronologically, observing how their work changed and developed over time. In this column, I proceed album by album and film by film, until I’ve covered the gross yield of that musician/band or director. Usually, I select artists with which I am only somewhat familiar, if at all.

Current Projects:
Film – Sam Peckinpah
Music – Sparklehorse

It’s a Wonderful Life (2001)

It’s a Wonderful Life marks a transition in the Sparklehorse discography. Whereas much of the first two albums were recorded to 8-track, It’s a Wonderful Life was constructed in a studio with producer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips), a change that seems to have been requested by label Capitol Records, but one that Linkous was apparently not only amenable to, but feeling a desire for. Linkous remains the driving creative force, however; no Sparklehorse band was constructed and then maintained throughout the recording. Instead, a number of bands and musicians contribute to the album. For the most part, you don’t notice the shifting lineup — the exception being Tom Waits’ appearance on “Dog Door” — as Linkous clearly has the talent to steer the album toward a particular destination.

There are certainly enough oars around to propel this ship; Linkous embraces a larger budget and pulls out plenty of bells and whistles from the cargo hold. Forget about the appearance of Waits, Fridmann, PJ Harvey, Vic Chesnutt and others for a second and take a look at the instruments Linkous employs himself: optigan, chamberlin, sampler, guitar, Wurlitzer piano, percussion, acoustic guitar, Casio keyboard, mellotron, drum machine, Prophet 5 synthesizer, drums, backwards midget voice (hmm…), Magic Genie organ, Moog synthesizer, wire record, baritone guitar, and e-bow guitar. Phew. Fortunately, Linkous had already cut his teeth as a musician and makes use of all of this stuff in a tasteful manner; he only throws in the kitchen sink because the song requires the sound of a sink being thrown. Consider the use of PJ Harvey’s backing vocals on “Piano Fire.” It’s hard to imagine the song’s chorus feeling complete without her; the seamless integration of such a well-known, distinct voice is representative of the cohesiveness of the album. That said, I have to bring up the aforementioned exception, “Dog Door,” which sounds like an outtake from a Waits album. Linkous wrote the music, calling it “more like a dirge than a pop song.”* The music does suit Waits — a lot of his own songs are like demented dirges, anyway — but the presence of his voice, and perhaps his assistance on the lyrics, proves the irritant that makes this thumb throb with soreness and stick out from its fellows. Not even Linkous can employ Waits’ gravely tones in a unobtrusive manner. But, it’s one song out of thirteen; it can be easily forgiven. Besides, it’s not a bad Tom Waits song, it just got lost and ended up on a Sparklehorse album.

Apart from this misstep, and despite the studio production and guest musicians, It’s a Wonderful Life retains the intimacy present in Sparklehorse’s first two albums; Linkous doesn’t get lost amongst his new toys. You’ll be reassured of this as early as the album’s second track, “Gold Day,” a lush, beautiful track with Linkous’ voice loud in the mix. Put on headphones and you’ll feel like he’s singing gently against your ear, sounding fragile and absent of any protective affectation. There’s a palpable sadness beneath his words that I find sometimes elicits a lump in my own throat, but when the chorus arrives — the words, “keep all your crows away / hold skinny wolves at bay / in silver piles of smiles,” followed by the blessing, “may all your days be gold my child” (a benediction made even more beautiful by the backing vocals of Nina Persson, who is rather angelic herself) — it’s a sublime moment. It may not be enough to convince you that life has meaning, but it’s certainly capable of inspiring a feeling of gratitude for the way in which the chaos can sometimes arrange itself into beauty (if you’re into that kind of thing). I get a similar, if not quite as majestic, feeling from the chorus of “Little Fat Baby,” nestled as it is in a musical valley consisting mostly of Joan Wasser‘s violin (as an aside, I am a big fan of Wasser’s solo albums released under the name Joan as Policewoman).

In fact, a lot of It’s a Wonderful Life could be described as pretty. Apart from “Dog Door,” only a couple tracks feature feathers somewhat ruffled: there’s the aforementioned “Piano Fire” and “King of Nails,” which feature the most prominent guitar on an album containing of a lot of ivories being tickled (just look at all the keyboards and such listed in Linkous’ credits above). Distorted six-string is probably what gives these two songs a harder edge, though neither approaches the fury of Good Morning Spider‘s “Pig.”

Given the album’s inclination toward the ornate and delicate, It’s a Wonderful Life feels more cohesive than the first two Sparklehorse albums; it doesn’t have the peaks and valleys of Vivadixie or Spider‘s sudden explosions of fierce rock. I guess you could say it’s more mature, but I want to be sure that’s not read as a statement of It’s a Wonderful Life‘s superiority over the other two. Talented musicians make good use of their given skills at a particular moment, and Linkous, having proved he could create great albums with limited means, proves here that he can do the same with a broader pallet (and continued to do so with his next album, Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain). Each Sparklehorse album has a lot to offer, it’s just a damn shame there’s so few of them and no more forthcoming.

* The Portable Infinite interview with Mark Linkous.

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Track Listing of It’s a Wonderful Life with YouTube video links (apparently videos were produced for all of the album’s songs by various filmmakers for a Sundance Channel show called “Sonic Cinema”) :

1. “It’s a Wonderful Life” – 2:59
2. “Gold Day” – 4:14
3. “Piano Fire” – 2:43 (different version, album version here)
4. “Sea of Teeth” – 4:29
5. “Apple Bed” – 4:54
6. “King of Nails” – 4:18
7. “Eyepennies” – 5:27 (also, here’s a live performance)
8. “Dog Door” (Brennan/Linkous/Waits) – 2:46
9. “More Yellow Birds” – 4:53 (couldn’t find the “Sonic Cinema” version)
10. “Little Fat Baby” (Chesnutt/Linkous) – 3:40
11. “Devil’s New” – 3:32 (couldn’t find the “Sonic Cinema” version)
12. “Comfort Me” – 5:01
13. “Babies on the Sun” – 4:37
14. “Morning Hollow” [hidden track] – 7:26

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Read the other entries in this series:
1. Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot (1995) and Chords I’ve Known EP (1996)
2. Good Morning Spider (1998) and Distorted Ghosts EP (2000)

Next up in this series: Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (2006)

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