In the past couple years, we’ve seen Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock and Cat Power’s Chan Marshall — formerly king and queen of cult-indie self-destruction — get their onstage acts together. Sparklehorse mastermind Mark Linkous is not quite in the same category: he’s always been more professional, less loose cannon. And yet, he’s never seemed quite comfortable in the role of performer. It’s as if he’d kill to be hiding under the horse head that features so prominently in his band’s lyrics and album art. With last year’s release of Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, Sparklehorse’s fourth album, it seemed like Linkous had turned a corner. In the five years between Dreamt for Light Years and its precursor, 2001’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Linkous jumped ship from Virginia to North Carolina, faced the deaths of several close friends, and battled demons that included depression and drug addiction. It was so much that he almost shelved the record and quit playing altogether. The new album was both a resurrection and a return to form, its bittersweet affirmations of life underlined by the feeling that this dude is really trying to convince himself. Of the material performed at the Empty Bottle — in a show branded an official “afterparty” for Lollapalooza, despite its definite (pending back-to-the-future time machine) status as “pre” — only one song came from the new album. More than half of the set list was made up of classics from Sparklehorse’s debut, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, with the rest filled in by a handful of tunes from Good Morning Spider and It’s a Wonderful Life. I’m dying to make a point about Linkous being uneasy playing for a clamoring crowd the intensely personal songs that emerged from one of his darkest phases, but it’s pure speculation, and I don’t like the idea of exploiting Linkous’s bad times for an angle. Instead I’ll (1.) speculate about Linkous’ feelings about performing in general and also (2.) gratuitously quote the best Sparklehorse couplet ever.
1. There’s something to the notion that Sparklehorse might read better on the page than in performance. The albums leave Linkous shrouded in a disguise that he doesn’t seem all that thrilled to throw off for a live show. On record, Linkous’ voice comes in a number of different guises — loud and violent, thin and beseeching, quiet and cloying — all made possible by subtle shades and effects, usually distortive, in production. Exposed to bright lights and many eyeballs, Linkous seems more resigned than anything else, anxious to get another tour of duty over with. The band still sounds good: they’re nothing if not professional. And Linkous’s switching from straight mic to distorted mic (or from “clean” to “dirty,” as it’s demarcated on the set list) does produce an identifiable difference in sound and emotional resonance. But there’s something lost in the translation between Linkous’s recorded, finished songs and the corresponding, unpredictable creatures he creates live. Call it the perfectionist’s curse. Some artists are recording artists first, creative citizens of the world second, and performers sixth or seventh. The band opened with a ravenous version of the mocking “Pig”, possessor of the band’s best couplet ever (see 2. below). After that rousing, get-on-your-bikes-and-ride opener, they took it down several notches for the melancholic slow-groove of “Apple Bed”, which, when it split open in the last quarter, showcased Johnny Hott’s flamboyant, propulsive drumming style. Following a serviceable “Painbirds”, Linkous introduced the deceptively jaunty “Saturday”, which came with a storm in the middle. Enter “Piano Fire”, with bassist Paula Jean Brown competently subbing on PJ Harvey’s recorded vox. We heard a bunch from Vivadixie, including “Hammering the Cramps”, “Sad & Beautiful World”, “Weird Sisters”, and “Someday I Will Treat You Good”. In the middle of this series was the one song from the new album: “It’s Not So Hard”, a self-motivational kick-in-the-pants, perfectly placed after a couple of slower-tempo dirge-ballads. Near the set’s end, they played, in a bow to audience requests, a gorgeous off-the-cuff “Eyepennies”, complete with PJ Harvey’s recorded vocals. About halfway through the show, Linkous remarked that the frequencies in his earpiece felt “like getting stabbed in the ear by an ice pick,” and spent a few minutes trying and failing to correct it. If anything, that’s probably why the encore got cut short: according to the set list, “Happy Man”, arguably the band’s most interesting experiment in using distortion for emotional impact, was supposed to close us off as the second in a two-song encore. Instead we got a one-punch outro with “Gold Days” — an anthemic, uplifting closer, to be sure, but no “Happy Man”. After seeing Chan Marshall break through to the other side of alcoholism, perhaps I expected Mark Linkous to exude a similar kind of radiance, his own kind of reinvention (with happy dance moves?), mirroring, before my very eyes, the bursting through from gloom into sunshine that characterizes “Happy Man”. But Linkous didn’t play that this time around. And anyway, he’s always been self-contained, private, his songs a code that we still can’t crack. Maybe one day he’ll let us in. But if the impenetrability’s gone, will we want to stay there? The speculation continues.
2. I want to be a stupid and shallow motherfucker now
I want to be a tough-skinned bitch but I don’t know how –“Pig” (Word.)