Sparklehorse + Fennesz - In the Fishtank 15
Ever since Aerosmith and Run DMC paved the way for completely unexpected and unlikely collaborations, odd musical couples have been popping up every now and again (most recently, DJ Tiësto has been encouraging head-scratching with his track featuring Sigur Ros? Jonsi), and it would seem that some of the most intriguing ones are coerced by the fine folks/evil geniuses at Konkurrent with their In The Fishtank series. The Netherlands-based label gives two bands studio time to get together and record whatever happens over the course of two days, and they seemingly select groups based on their disparity. Care for hard-rocking Motorpsycho with the horn section from the experimental-jazz ensemble Jaga Jazzist? How about anarcho-punks The Ex teaming up with Tortoise? Or Fennesz's trademark glitchy electronics with the delicate folk of Sparklehorse?
If you can imagine for a minute what that would sound like, you're probably not too far off from what In The Fishtank 15 ended up being. Opener "Music Box of Snakes" is more or less a Fennesz track, which serves as both a compliment and a complaint: yes, it's a very fine ambient track in typical Fennesz style, but where's the other half of the collaboration? Where is the collaboration, at all" Mark Linkous (aka Sparklehorse) might be in the back manning a keyboard or sampler, but there is no sense that he is injecting anything personal into the track.
"Goodnight Sweetheart" fares much better; this is what we were expecting when we envisioned this partnership. Linkous's gorgeous, processed wail of the track's title snakes through dense drones, and it is really quite haunting once it goes a capella towards the end whenthe noise is dialed back and the music box melody surfaces through the haze. "If My Heart," likewise, is a great example of two diverse artists working in concert: Linkous's voice and acoustic guitar don't sound out-of-place, nor does Fennesz step on anyone's toes. He takes even more of a backseat in the appropriately titled "Mark's Guitar Piece," subtly accenting a simple guitar melody, perhaps apologizing for dominating the first quarter of the record.
The monolithic "NC Bongo Buddy" clocks in at eleven and a half minutes, and this is around the point where it becomes clear that maybe this fishtank isn't big enough for the both of them. Stylistically a continuation of the opening track, it is another foray into what is decidedly Fennesz's end of things: heavy drones and a fantastically, though sadly underused, spacey guitar squealing and screaming in the distance. Combined, this track and the first take up over half of the runtime. And then there's "Christian's Guitar Piece" and the pulsating, noisy"and ultimately disposable"experiment "Shai-Hulud" on top of that. There is a strong feeling that this is less "Sparklehorse + Fennesz" and more "Fennesz featuring Sparklehorse."
With electronic instruments, it's fairly difficult to imbue the sound with any sense of personal character. No matter who it is, pressing the same keys on the same keyboard is going to give a musician the same sound. As such, there is very little about In The Fishtank 15 that feels truly collaborative. Mark Linkous could have very well been entirely absent from the studio for more than half the album and we'd be none the wiser.
Why, then, does the album earn such a respectable score? Quite simply, the music is fantastic, regardless of who did what. Fennesz is cranking out his usual brand of ambient, balancing harsh and mellow tones handily, while Sparkelhorse's all-too-seldom appearances imbue the album with a positively harrowing air. I do wish there were more vocal contributions from him, but what is here is absolutely enthralling; "Goodnight Sweetheart" will undoubtedly have a place on my year-end list. For those willing to accept that it is not the most even-handed collaboration ever, there is an enormously atmospheric record here that will probably only be disappointing to die-hard Sparklehorse fans.