Sparklehorse’s usually reclusive core member, Mark Linkous, has been relatively busy in 2009. He played a lead role in the year’s magnum collaborative opus Dark Night of the Soul, an album of genius which found him working with producer Danger Mouse to provide the sonic groundwork for a revolving door of guests including Julian Casablancas, Frank Black, Iggy Pop, Wayne Coyne and Jason Lytle, only to see its official release shelved indefinitely by logistical label difficulties. Fortunately, the resources of the Internet abide, so most were able to eventually come across it one way or another.
For another collaborative effort, the 15th installment of the esteemed In the Fishtank series, Linkous has teamed up with electronic ambient artist Christian Fennesz to create a wafting album of dreamy atmospherics and glacially beautiful experimentation. Though the series seeks to throw two disparate acts in the studio together and capture their spontaneous exchange, these two have actually worked together before. Fennesz originally planned to appear on Sparklehorse’s most recent studio album, but just ended up joining the band on some tour dates.
The In the Fishtank imprint, around since 1999, generally skews experimental, but ultimately it seems to allow artists free reign to work on whatever inspires them at the moment. Perhaps the one thing that binds the series is a sense of sonic exploration and a slow, muted pacing, as past peak entrees from Low/Dirty Three and Isis/Aereogramme have amply demonstrated through differing approaches. Of course, it helps that all of those who are chosen for the project exhibit those tendencies in some way already. The entities involved this time around are no exception. Listeners expecting anything resembling a Sparklehorse album should beware though. What In the Fishtank 15 offers, perhaps more so than any recent installment, are not songs, but rather pieces of sonic introspection.
The extended title track and finale from Sparklehorse’s 2006 album Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain actually sounds like a precursor to this music, there concluding an album of intricately structured dream-pop with 10 minutes of relaxed and expansive tones—something of an instrumental space lullaby. The spirit of that track hangs over this entire album, especially on the opener “Music Box of Snakes”, with its evocative use of layered sounds creating a pastoral other-worldliness. The fractured whirring and rattling of instrumentation surrounds a timid little semi-melody that weaves in and out of the fray, both eerie and claustrophobic enough to live up to the track’s title.
Fennesz’s influence here is palpable, since in general much of this mercurial ambient music adheres more closely to his body of work than Linkous’. His mark is especially dominant on the blip-blop noise of “Shai-Hulud”, the most jarring and unusual piece here. Certainly some limited guitar strumming and the few distinctive vocals that emerge, such as the effect-laden cooing on “Goodnight Sweetheart”, are identifiable as belonging to Linkous, but otherwise the two forces meld together pretty homogeneously. It’s difficult to parse out exactly who’s doing what.
There are two clearly demarcated songs during the second half, “Mark’s Guitar Piece” and “Christian’s Guitar Piece”, which are almost purely acoustic and serve to clear out the languid, perpetually unwinding tones that more thoroughly fill up the aural space elsewhere. In lifting the shroud of the preceding music, these pieces feel like a comfortingly sparse dénouement.
Sparklehorse and Fennesz craft wistful ambient music which will no doubt satisfy fans of previous installments of In the Fishtank, and will likely be of interest to Mark Linkous’ more adventurous followers. Essentially lacking any form of percussion, not to mention basic rhythmic and structural boundaries, the music takes fleeting sonic elements which have previously functioned as adornments on Sparklehorse records and pushes them to the forefront. What results is a subtly moody work, as subdued in some places as it is effervescent in others.
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