Tag Archives: Sparklehorse

Communication – The Cardigans

Some songs don’t make sense as fan favourites only. They feel like they should belong to, be known and loved by, the widest possible audience. Probably every music fan has a list of songs like that.*

It’s one thing when such a song is by a band of indie heroes whose music is scruffy and raw, and would need to be significantly polished up to become acceptable to the mainstream. However good they are, there’s a reason why Turn On the News is known only to Husker Du fans and Unsatisfied only to Replacements fans, but even my dad would recognise Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train were Ken Bruce to play it tomorrow. There’s a reason why Rod Stewart’s readings of I Don’t Want to Talk About It and Downtown Train were hits but the Crazy Horse and Tom Waits originals weren’t. But I can’t really understand how Communication by the Cardigans wasn’t a huge hit.

The Cardigans’ discography is spottiness incarnate. Lovefool is enduringly perfect (it’s the bassline. Dear lord, that bassline); My Favourite Game is enduringly regrettable. Every album has some great moments (even Gran Turismo had Erase/Rewind), but all of their albums have clunkers and a bulk of material that’s neither really here nor there.

But Communication – from 2003’s Long Gone Before Daylight – is different. Communication wasn’t the typical indie-with-strings ballady thing you got from a lot of that era’s bands, and neither was it particularly rootsy, although much of Long Gone Before Daylight was – the drums, for example, sound 2003 (clipped and somewhat like samples), not 1973.

The record is beautifully arranged. The band are cast in supporting textural roles, other than guitarist and principle songwriter Peter Svensson, whose prominent riff features in the intro, after the first chorus and in the outro, and who gets to play rather a nice harmonised solo**. Other than that, the most notable performance by a band member is Bengt Lagerberg’s drumming, which has nice Bonham-inflected kick drum work (the influence of Bonham’s Kashmir beat is evident in those semi-quavers), but isn’t in the least bit bombastic. He could have turned this song into a power ballad but wisely chose not to, playing with Hot Rods for a smaller sound. The band merely provide the frame for Patrik Bartosch’s string arrangement – only really getting big and prominent in the final chorus, but otherwise nicely supportive to the mood and atmosphere of the song – and Persson’s vocal.

Which is where a song like Communication succeeds or fails. Her voice pushed to the very front of the mix and left relatively dry and exposed, Persson sings Communication like it’s the most important thing she’s ever had to say, and her performance is moving and feels very true. It’s what gets her over a couple of slightly awkward lines (whatever they may mean to us, Persson’s delivery insists that her words are meaningful to her), and gives such force when the band plays its two huge arrangemental aces: the triplet downbeats of “I’m talking and talking” in the final chorus and that magical moment when Persson sings “And I hold a record for being patient” while drummer Lagerberg plays the song’s most live-sounding fill and the song seems suspended in mid-air for a second until the rest of the band comes back in.
It’s a glorious moment. It’s a big moment, in some ways too big for a song that no one really heard when it came out.

Songs have long lives these days, and can return to the charts or enter them for the first time decades after release, were they suddenly to find mass relevance. Maybe some music supervisor will use Communication to score a particularly emotional scene in a TV show or film and the song will find the wider audience it’s not had up to now. Until then it remains, I suspect, treasured by the band’s deep fans.

Cardigans

*I’ll give you some of mine: Jellyfish’s The King is Half-Undressed, Big Star’s The Ballad of El Goodo, Sparklehorse’s Some Day I Will Treat You Good, No Need to Worry by the Folk Implosion

**Svensson has a profitable sideline these days as a writer, guitarist and producer for hire. Look for him among the credits on records by The Weeknd, Ariana Grande and Ellie Goulding.

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Belly – King/Sparklehorse – Good Morning Spider; or less hi, more fi, part 3

Talking about her career in music and her final Swan Song EPs in a recent interview with Mouth magazine, former Throwing Muses and Breeders guitarist/Belly frontwoman Tanya Donelly described Belly’s second album King as a more ‘lo-fi’ record than their debut, Star.

Strange description, I thought. King‘s not a slick record, but it’s one that sounds like a band in a room playing its songs. It was produced and mixed by Glyn Johns (Beatles, Stones, the Who, Zeppelin, the Eagles – enough of a track record for ya?) and engineered by Jack Joseph Puig, at the very high-spec Compass Point studio in Nassau: a minimum of overdubs, live vocals, hard-panned guitars, natural-sounding ambiances. Donelly’s voice sometimes cracks. Gail Greenwood’s bass does not always hit the one with Chris Gorman’s kick. You can hear real-time fader and pan-pot moves. It sounds great. I wouldn’t want to hear it any other way.

Star sounds good, too. But it doesn’t sound like a band playing songs together in a room. It sounds like something bad going down in Toytown. It’s a very carefully constructed sound world, one which had little to do with the material reality of Belly-the-band playing instruments in a room. Which brings us back to the discussion of terminology from a couple of months back. If a ‘low fidelity’ record is simply one that isn’t slick, then, sure, maybe King is lo-fi. If a lo-fi record is simply one that doesn’t sound ‘good’, then King ain’t one in my book. If a lo-fi record is one that doesn’t sound like the music sounded before it hit tape, then King is the very opposite. It’s a hi-fi record. One of the hi-est.

And, from King, back to Good Morning Spider by Sparklehorse. GMS‘s centrepiece is a song called Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man. Happy Man is probably the best song Mark Linkous ever wrote. It’s propulsive, urgent, utterly surreal and yet somehow anthemic and universal. Linkous, something of a contrarian, decided to bury the first verse and the chorus under AM radio static and bleepy noise. The song then almost fades all the way in for the second verse, before going the other way, becoming temporarily submerged entirely under white noise and a reprise of the organ chords of Chaos of the Galaxy, the short instrumental piece that begins the track. Finally the song fades in properly in time for the second chorus.

Linkous later admitted in interviews that this was a deliberate attempt to sabotage a song he recognised as having commercial potential; he didn’t want it to be extracted and released as a single the way Someday I Will Treat You Good from Vivadixiesubmarine plot had been. I’m sure Capitol were delighted. Still, when you don’t have a producer, you might be able to pull off this kind of thing once or twice before you get a stern talking to from your label.

I wasn’t aware until recently that Linkous re-recorded the song without the radio static and Chaos of the Galaxy sections, releasing it on an EP called Distorted Ghost. The version I knew and treasured was a live version that segued into Pig (called, imaginatively, Happy Pig), which was also released on Distorted Ghost. I’d burned it off a free CD from Uncut before promptly losing the CD and forgetting where the track came from (a BBC session, I think). I loved the rawness of it, and the furious tempo at which the song was played. At that speed, Linkous’ plea (that he only wants to be happy) sounded more real than ever. In 2010, he showed us how real.

But let’s not get caught up in that now. What matters for this discussion is that, for all that Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man is raw and messy, it’s not a faithful document of a real-time musical event. It’s an elaborate construction, an aural sleight of hand. Under a sensible definition of the term, we couldn’t call this track lo-fi. The term simply wouldn’t be applicable. Which only goes to show the difficulty of talking about music. You constantly have to define your terms, almost song by song. When two music fans talk about lo-fi, they may very well not mean the same thing by it. Sometimes this talking at cross-purposes is fun and thought-provoking. Sometimes it makes you want to bang your head against the wall.

If I have a conclusion – after a couple of months of kicking around these ideas occasionally – it’s that I have a personal definition of lo-fi that probably isn’t shared by music fans generally, so I have to acknowledge the more general definition too. And regarding Sparklehorse, Good Morning Spider is a difficult album to pin down. Superficially it sounds more like a lo-fi album ‘should’ sound, but it achieved that sound in a variety of ways, which didn’t always have to do with just banging out songs in an honest and authentic way, which often seem to be the unspoken connotations of the term ‘lo-fi’. More than simply a rough, raw, ragged album, GMS is an artful album, even if, when exposed to the opening bars of Pig, my brother once proclaimed, ‘But this doesn’t even sound good!’

BellyHorse
Left: Mark Linkous and his brothers in weird, Danger Mouse and David Lynch. Right: Belly on the beach, Nassau, 1995

A cover I’ve recorded of Happy Man, based on the version I refer to above:

Sparklehorse – Good Morning Spider; or less hi, more fi, part 2

So Mark Linkous retreated to his barn in Virginia to record Good Morning Spider. This time, there was no official engineer or outside producer. There was just him, David Lowery, Sophia Michalitsianos (Sol Seppy), Johnny Hott, Scott Minor, Melissa Moore and Steve McCarthy, under the direction of Linkous and Lowery, both of whom are credited with production.

The majority of the instruments on the album (guitar, bass, keyboards, samples, drum programming) were handled by these two, with Hott and Minor playing live drums on a couple of tracks, Michalitsianos playing cello, Moore playing violin and McCarthy playing pedal steel.

Yet Good Morning Spider sounds broadly similar to Vivadixie. More of the drum tracks sound and feel – and presumably were – programmed (which is easy enough to explain: drums are hard to record well, and drum sounds tend to reveal the character of the rooms they’re recorded in, which is not usually a good thing for those recording at home), but otherwise Spider and Vivadixie inhabit broadly similar soundworlds of multi-tracked distorted vocals, low-tech drum (machine) sounds and rickety keyboards.

Probably the most notable difference for me lies in the electric guitar sounds, which are drier on Spider than on Vivadixie, and in the placements in the mix of the drums and vocals, which is fairly consistent on Vivadixie and varies wildly from song to song on Spider. It is this that makes Good Morning Spider sound like a lo-fi record, despite being a record on a big label, made by a guy who had acquired some decent, if idiosyncratic, gear and was in no sense a recording novice (and who had another old hand there to help, in the shape of David Lowery).

Mixing engineers within the context of an album project tend to create mixes that have similar densities and in which the relative levels of bass and ambiance are consistent track to track. To a practiced mixer, this becomes second nature. They put the key elements of the track in the places that they feel they need to be and fill out the picture from there. This is why mixers seem to have distinctive sonic imprints; their work reflects the way they like to hear music and will tend to be fairly consistent from project to project, even with different artists.

Linkous and Lowery on Good Morning Spider mixed each song only in terms of itself, rarely (I would guess) referencing the others to check balances across the whole album, which is why the drums stick out miles on Maria’s Little Elbows and Cruel Sun and are completely buried by distorted guitars on Pig and Happy Man. It is this lack of a consistent balance, a sonic picture that changes from song to song, that makes Spider feel like a lo-fi record, although the instrument and vocal sounds aren’t always all that lo-fi in themselves. Big-label records don’t tend to sound like this, because very few audio professionals would ever mix like this.

But would it have been a better album if it had been mixed by Andy Wallace? That’s another question, for another day.

Sparklehorsex

Linkous on a stage with pedals

A cover I’ve recorded of Happy Man, a key track from Good Morning Spider:

Sparklehorse – Good Morning Spider; or less hi, more fi, part 1

The way country people kind of, being so isolated, they have to kind of improvise with things they have access to. I always thought that was a really admirable trait of country people, you know. I think that’s why a lot of music seems really boring and sterile to me now because a lot of it’s just, seems like most of its being made in LA or New York, or Seattle or whatever. And you have, you know, a guy who’s the engineer, and that’s his job, or a producer and his job is a lot of times to stand over the musicians and say – like standing over a painting and saying, you know, ‘Use green now!’ And one good thing about owning your own studio is that you’re not on the clock and you can experiment all you want, so this record was mostly done at home in Static King, alone, because I bought my own little baby studio.

Mark Linkous is Sparklehorse, Lotje Ijzermans, Lola da Musica, VPRO, 1998

Mark Linkous in 1998 was a man convinced of the upsides of home recording. His first album, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, had been partly recorded at his own Static King studio in Virginia, but Dennis Herring had been on board as a producer and much of the work on the record was done at Richmond’s Sound of Music and Seattle’s Bad Animals, owned by Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart (and a proper A-list studio in which virtually every major 1990s alt. rock band had logged time). The above quote makes it clear that working in this way, with Herring at least, was not an entirely happy experience for Linkous. We can reasonably infer he didn’t like taking outside direction from a producer, and he comes right out and says he didn’t like working to an externally enforced schedule. Maybe it’s going too far to suggest he was unhappy with the way his record had sounded, but nonetheless Good Morning Spider, Linkous’ second album as Sparklehorse, was entirely recorded at his own studio, which by now was a sixteen-track facility equipped with an arsenal of old, clapped-out and discarded equipment: organs, keyboards, samplers, drum machines, intercoms from a dentist’s office and a CB-radio microphone. Not lo-fi, in the hiss-ridden-Portastudio sense, but certainly not state of the art by the standards of the late nineties, and more than a little eccentric in equipment choices. Image
Sparklehorse (Mark Linkous)

A cover I recorded of Happy Man, the centrepiece track of Good Morning Spider: