Reviews

Sparklehorse

Mark Linkous

It's almost as if Sparklehorse mastermind Mark Linkous would rather be hiding under the horse head that features so prominently in his lyrics and album art.

Sparklehorse

Sparklehorse

City: Chicago, IL
Venue: Empty Bottle
Date: 2007-08-02

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.)

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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