London Islington Union Chapel
First impressions? Christ! He’s tall. We’re so used to seeing Mark Linkous peddling his eccentricities from the waist-height confines of a wheelchair that the first of tonight’s many surprises comes just seeing him walk, unaided, teetering and pin-thin on to the Union Chapel altar. The last time Sparklehorse prayed, sorry, played here, supporting the terminally dull Mazzy Star (a band who could make a motorway lay-by seem exciting), you could already sense a growing dissatisfaction within Linkous. ‘Vivadixie…’ was barely out of the womb, but already his mind was elsewhere.
This time he’s accompanied by two new band members, guitarist Sophie Michalitsianos and bassist Andrew Hall (no, not the Camper Van Beethoven one), a radical reworking of the songs from ‘Vivadixie…’ and a raft of new songs that will more than settle the fears of those who wondered whether the twinkling brilliance of that debut would prove to be unrepeatable. Tonight, songs flow from them like light. As for old favourites, well, at times it’s nigh impossible to detect where they end and the new ones begin, such is the level of reinvention. ‘Spirit Ditch’, ‘Tears On Fresh Fruit’ and ‘Saturday’ in particular are prodded, pulled about and, on occasion, turned inside out until they bear scant relation to anything you remember.
‘Hammering The Cramps’, the final encore, is stripped of its linear motion on record and given a coltish swagger undetectable in the original. As for the new stuff? Where most bands tend to identify, settle on and then move in a direction, Sparklehorse’s only ‘direction’ seems to be outward. The concentric circles that mark Linkous’ steady progress grow further and further apart with each new song unveiled tonight. One moment he’s playfully flirting with the static grace of Satie’s ‘Trois Gymnopdies’ (on a song called, I think, ‘St Mary’ or ‘Cruel Sun’). The next, he’s grappling depraved Stooges-esque guitar sounds to the ground and stamping them into the stage.
Sparklehorse’s support dates with Radiohead have seemingly rubbed off on a couple of the new songs. One of them features a xylophone. Linkous, however, bypasses the overt prettiness of a ‘No Surprises’ and hammers out a maladjusted ‘tune’ that has more to do with a toddler’s first attempt at expression than anything approaching competence. This childlike dreamism is compounded by the sight of water bubbles occasionally loosed from the top of the PA stack, and the sound of gunshots, train-whistles, the deliciously analogue clicking of clockwork toys and the maybe imagined sound of a horse neighing and whinnying.
That Linkous is juggling all these elements while never losing sight of the lonesome sun-baked country mythology at the heart of these charming songs is nothing short of astonishing. Having written and recorded the last word in lo-fi with ‘Vivadixie…’, Sparklehorse have shredded and restapled the blueprint. Really, all you can do is gasp.