Sparklehorse: Danny Clinch
August 20, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

From Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett to Vic Chesnutt, the pop landscape is dotted with oddball isolationists lost in their own sonic playgrounds, unconcerned with whether anyone but their own shy shelves is listening to their fragile melodies. Recently, this freak-family tree has grown to include the Eels’ Mark Everett and Mark Linkous, the Virginia-rooted auteur behind Sparklehorse. One could call Linkous the band’s driving force if he didn’t sound so paralyzed with ennui — and he’s never been more so than on It’s a Wonderful Life, Sparklehorse’s third collection of gorgeous gloom.

Linkous, who writes the songs and plays numerous instruments, sings in the same dry, ragged voice that he had on 1999’s major-label debut ”Good Morning Spider.” But this time, the music is even more haunted. The brittle keyboards and violins make for the sound of an Appala-chian funeral. It’s the ”O Brother, Where Art Thou”? for the modern death-obsessed introvert. Linkous, a clearly well-connected loner, is joined by the likes of Tom Waits, who grumbles unintelligibly through the clunker ”Dog Door,” and the Cardigans’ Nina Persson, who offsets Linkous’ voice with hearth-like harmonies. PJ Harvey helps raise the roof on ”Piano Fire,” which scrapes and clatters like great scuzz rock should. They’re all like friends who drop by Linkous’ basement, say hi, and then quickly depart.

And who can blame them? In the grand tradition of pop kooks, Linkous has a gift for visual lyrics flecked with ”Blair Witch” eeriness: Was there a murder that led to blood ”rushing up the stairs” in ”King of Nails”? What’s with the cat asleep on his chest, ”stealing my breath,” in ”Eyepennies”? Or the snakes, ”sunken barges,” and ”graves of cats” that litter the other songs? It’s revealing that the album’s most emotionally direct song, a lament for dissipated love called ”Morning Hollow,” is a hidden track. For Linkous, as with his unorthodox predecessors, feelings can be as painful as popularity.

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