|Mark Linkous, seen here playing last year in New York, fronts Sparklehorse. (HIROYUKI ITO for the NEW YORK TIMES/file 2006)|
A revived Sparklehorse is particularly bright
Sparklehorse leader Mark Linkous began his hourlong set at the Paradise Rock Club Monday night with a quietly harrowing reading of "Spirit Ditch," a highlight from his 1995 debut, "Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot." When he half-sang, half-whispered the words "Woke up in a burned-out basement," anyone familiar with Linkous's past was inclined to believe him.
There was a time when the fact that Linkous had woken up at all was cause for rejoicing and relief. In 1996, an overdose of Valium and antidepressants during a European tour very nearly cut short the singer-songwriter's life. After collapsing in a London hotel room, Linkous was discovered 14 hours later, his legs pinned beneath him, their circulation cut off. When medics tried to straighten his limbs, the attempt triggered a heart attack. A three-month hospital stay and seven operations were required to save Linkous's legs.
Since that near-death experience, Sparklehorse's songs (the band is, essentially, Linkous and whomever he's collaborating with at the moment) have become even more exquisitely haunted and self-searching than before, but they're now also somewhat celebratory -- illuminated by pockets of light, shot through with hope and flashes of electric guitar. Linkous's first album in five years, "Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain," which features contributions by artists ranging from his hero Tom Waits to Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann to mash-up hotshot DJ Danger Mouse, is laced with such luminous moments.
Given Linkous's history, a new song such as the Beatles-esque "Don't Take My Sunshine Away," with its lovely, lysergic imagery ("Your face is like the sun sinking into the ocean . . . like watching flowers growing in fast motion"), sounded particularly bright and blissful Monday evening. Superbly backed by a four-piece band consisting of bass, keyboards, drums, and pedal steel, Linkous projected reclusiveness even as he stood at the center of the stage. He said little between songs, but that left more room for him to unspool stunning slow ones (country-soul-tinged beauties such as "Saturday" and "Sad & Beautiful World") and unleash fiercer, faster ones ("Hammering the Cramps," a compressed slab of pure fuzz-toned pop, was a treat).
The noisy, clattering numbers proved a tonic to the dark, woozy majesty of the ballads. The new "It's Not So Hard," for instance, felt like a fresh blast of forward-moving energy that cleared out the catacombs and offered the potent lesson that after dreaming for years in the belly of a mountain, coming up and out for air can be a necessity.
Openers Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter delivered a strong set of folk-dusted alt-country that emphasized ex-Whiskeytown guitarist Phil Wandscher's pungent lead accents and the slow-burning sorrow of Sykes's voice. It was perhaps a bit early on a weekday evening for such a devastatingly downcast sound, but the singer-songwriter -- whose dark, wintry tone fell somewhere between Marianne Faithfull and the Cowboy Junkies' Margot Timmins -- cast a captivating spell nonetheless.