I remember being torn about PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea when it came out in 2000. A longtime fan, I was wary of Harvey’s newfound happiness and emotional clarity. A woman who had just closed her previous album with the haunting “Is This Desire?” was now shouting “This Is Love” from New York City’s rooftops.
My reaction was similar upon seeing Harvey sometime collaborator Mark Linkous and his touring incarnation of Sparklehorse live in Hollywood on February 9. Here was Linkous, a notorious recluse who has battled drug and mental-health problems, all spiffed up in a dapper suit and putting on a show that was altogether too antiseptic.
As the curtain went up and a wind machine on overdrive swept up Linkous’s hair, the band opened with “Gold Day” off career pinnacle It’s a Wonderful Life (2001). Linkous looked like the missing triplet of Wayne Coyne and Nick Cave, and he pretty much sounded like that, too. Not that Sparklehorse engaged in any Flaming Lips-style theatrics, only occasionally swirling some visuals around in the background. But the band retains its Lips-by-way-of Dave Fridmann sound. Fridmann produced Wonderful Life, and in concert Sparklehorse stuck to that sound’s signature lushness and penchant for vocoder vocals. Certainly Fridmann’s touch was felt more on this night than Danger Mouse’s, who produced last year’s Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (and was, incidentally, in attendance). In Linkous’s one particular Cave-like moment, he put down his guitar to head over to keyboards for “Getting It Wrong,” before which he appropriately and wittily remarked, “This is the one I usually fuck up.”
That song actually came off fine, but the band made a number of bad decisions throughout the night. The show was much too short, the main set list barely creeping up into double digits, with the band only returning for an encore of two songs. One of those was “Piano Fire,” which, like “Eyepennies” (another that was performed that night) was bolstered by guest vocals from PJ Harvey on Wonderful Life. I wondered if Harvey might happen to be in L.A. so as to join the band onstage, but alas, this dream didn’t get realized. It was left to the keyboardist to try to replicate Harvey’s searing vocals, big shoes that he didn’t even come close to filling. And why the band didn’t play “Don’t Take My Sunshinse Away,” the standout track from Dreamt for Light Years, is baffling.
The other songs the band did perform were all perfectly fine. But that was exactly the problem. Far be it from me to lament Linkous turning a corner and getting his shit together personally and professionally. But obviously what he’s left behind as part of that bargain is some of the soul-searching sloppiness of Sparklehorse’s earlier incarnations.