Arts: A wild, bareback ride through Country

Pop: SPARKLEHORSE SHEPHERD'S BUSH EMPIRE LONDON
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The Independent Culture
THE COUNTRY singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt once described the Sparklehorse main man, Mark Linkous, as a "rock'n'roll mechanic". It's a more evocative tag than the "New Country" one Linkous gets lumbered with, and not just because of his tendency to tinker with old motorbikes. Sparklehorse strip American rock down to its bare components, soup it up with an array of peculiarly lo-tech instruments (Casio keyboards, Toys 'R' Us samplers, Sony Walkmans) and fire it off on all cylinders.

Fuelled by Linkous's unfettered imagination, they bolted long before anyone tried to lock them in the New Country stable. Their debut album, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, spiked its sweetly sad country hues with angst-ridden guitar barrages such as "Tears on Fresh Fruit" and "Someday I Will Treat You Good". Both of these shred the New Country template. Their second album, Good Morning Spider, sees off the label swiftly with the opening post-Pixies howl of "Pig" (as in "squealing like a stuck one", surely). It closes tonight's set and it's a right little careering firecracker of a song.

What's exciting about Sparklehorse's performance is that, although Linkous is making some of the most adventurous and versatile music around, his sense of frustration is palpable. He's straining at the leash so much that at one point you could play the tension in the air with a violin bow. After killing a song half-way through with a cutting gesture across his throat, he prowls his stage corner like an angry bear, swinging his guitar around as if he's just caught it trying to kill the kids.

He's such an awkward one that the buoyant new single, "Sick of Goodbyes", doesn't even make the set list. But his mood goes deeper than that. Sparklehorse are playing with the singular determination of a band out to shake off some shackles for good. For every gorgeously plaintive "Gasoline Horseys", there's a "Hammering the Cramps", where they whip up a storm of unblinking sonic fury around their static forms. In mood at least, they're closer in these moments to the art rockers Sonic Youth or the drug-dazed gospel blues of Spiritualized than the shabby, one-dimensional country of Smog.

The only disappointment is an almost complete absence of their more wistful pop gems from the set. The breezy bubblegum blast of "Ghost of his Smile", the bittersweet "Maria's Little Elbows", and the rollicking all-American stomp of "Rainmaker" are all ignored, leaving you with ethereal ballads punctuated by blistering punk stabs and not much in-between. But you still get the impression that Sparklehorse aren't so much a one-trick pony as a shining mechanical animal with a tankful of strange juice.

I wouldn't like to second-guess Linkous's next move, but he seems revved up and ready to make it.

Kevin Harley

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