As much an exercise in self-flagellation as a working band, Red House Painters afforded Ohio-bred, San Francisco-based singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek the latitude to — to paraphrase Mick Jagger’s false offer — take his heart in his hand and pour it all over the stage. Without using the safety net provided by metaphor, Kozelek, a self-professed agoraphobic with a ghostly voice reminiscent of Tim Buckley’s, airs myriad insecurities and emotional inconstancies over his quartet’s skeletal backing.
Kozelek has frequent — you might even say obsessive — thoughts of childhood. He pines for the days when he was free to cavort on swings and rollercoasters (references to which crop up on almost every record). In keeping with that, Down Colorful Hill commences with “24,” a hymn mourning having reached what he apparently considers senior citizen status. For most of the record’s duration, Kozelek swings between musings about his own psychic pain (“Medicine Bottle” seems to address an ex-girlfriend who struggled to gain entry into his private world) and that of comrades with even greater difficulties (“Michael” expresses his feelings about a friend suffering from mental illness). Heavy going, particularly when most of the six songs, all recorded as demos, approach or pass the ten-minute mark.
The next year brought two distinct albums, both eponymous and shawled in sepia-tone sleeves, both rendingly confessional and mesmerizingly minimal. The first (which carries a photo of a dilapidated rollercoaster on its cover) offers more emotional contrast than any of the other Red House Painters albums, even opening with the vaguely sanguine “Grace Cathedral Park,” an autumnal melody that recalls Brit baroque-popsters Eyeless in Gaza. Of course, old demons don’t die easy, as evidenced by the wistful “Things Mean a Lot” (Kozelek’s dismay at the transience of relationships) and the anguished “Katy Song” (an epic that fades out on several minutes of wordless wails, à la Buckley). Guitarist Gordon Mack, bassist Jerry Vessel and drummer Anthony Koutsos periodically muster a restrained jazzy groove, but for the most part, spartanism still prevails.
The second Red House Painters (distinguished by its sleeve photo of a rural footbridge) returns to the epic song length and sketchy sonic infrastructure of the debut; Kozelek likewise reverts to a more monochromatic outlook. “Evil” is a shuddering, dead-of-night assessment of a relationship turned poisonous; “New Jersey” reprises a song from the second album, adding a more palpable sense of friction. An unironic rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock,” however, is distracting, and a dirgelike album-ending version of “Star-Spangled Banner” is downright baffling.
The four-song Shock Me EP extends what’s rapidly becoming a tradition, bookended as it is by two versions of the title cut, originally brought to you by…Kiss. Ocean Beach lets the emotional and sonic pendulum swing a little more readily, allowing the band to wander as far afield as country-tinged instrumentals (“Cabezon”) and romantic, Iberian digressions (“San Geronimo”). Admittedly, there’s nothing remotely perky here, but Ocean Beach does portend a sunrise on the RHP horizon.
Kozelek’s outlook is not appreciably brighter on the primarily acoustic (but occasionally roaring) Songs for a Blue Guitar, which typically lacks credits but thanks, among others, the Cracker rhythm section and makes fine use of pedal steel guitar in several songs. Amid the beguiling originals are bemusing but pleasant covers of Yes’ “Long Distance Runaround” and the Cars’ “All Mixed Up” as well as eleven minutes of “Silly Love Songs,” a billowing Crazy Horse electric jam leading into a gracefully slow reduction of the Wings hit.
Retrospective is a two-disc RHP collection (one of album tracks, one of rarities) overseen by Kozelek, who shelved the band while he appeared in Almost Famous (he was Stillwater bassist “Larry Fellows”) and produce (and, alongside the Innocence Mission, Low, Will Oldham and others, contribute renditions of “Fly Away,” “Around and Around” and “I’m Sorry” to) a groovy, unironic 2000 John Denver tribute album (and why not?) released by Badman, for whom he proceeded to make two equally provocative solo records. Returning to Shock Me terrain (but picking a different metal source), the largely acoustic Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer gives three AC/DC songs the slow and steady treatment, filling out the seven-song disc with Denver’s “Around and Around” and three originals, one of them (“Find Me, Ruben Olivares”) named for a legendary Mexican bantamweight boxer. The Aussies’ songs have simple, sturdy chord structures that briefly befit Kozelek’s stately consideration (and largely invented melodies), but their lyrics have to be shrieked, with sweat pouring off of them, not to sound idiotic, or at least serious. Given the subtlety and/or obscurity of what Kozelek usually sings, it’s impossible to imagine him being straight-faced serious as he paces out lines like “They said stop, I said go / They said fast, I said slow / They said yes, I said no / I do the bad boy…” (he’s evidently not quite ready to voice the word “boogie”). And condescension does not suit him any better than doing the songs straight would.
What’s Next to the Moon, on which he redid (or remixed) those AC/DC songs and added seven more, has all the same issues, worsened by the elongated duration. Dry and attenuated with thin, simple acoustic guitar accompaniment that makes the more arranged and electrified tracks on Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer sound a lot better in retrospect, it wanders aimlessly between tedium and silliness, although some of the songs (“Up to My Neck in You,” “Love Hungry Man,” “You Ain’t Got a Hold on Me”) have exceedingly pretty melodies, so long as you can hear them over the contradictions implicit in consciously crude words aimed at drunk acne-riddle teenagers being gilded for sophisticated easy listening by adults.
If You Want Blood combines both solo discs on two vinyl discs, adding a pair of live AC/DC covers as a bonus.
The final Red House Painters album, Old Ramon, was finished in early 1998 but went unreleased for three years due to label issues. For whatever it’s worth, that means the band’s recording career ended prior to Kozelek’s solo sojourn, not after, although they did reunite and tour in 2001. Regardless, it’s a magnificent finale, as good as any other in the canon, with a push-pull meld of shimmering acoustic and sustained, distorted electric guitars and gorgeous songs about cats (“Wop-a-Din-Din”), a departed lover (female, despite the enigmatic title “Byrd Joel”) and John Denver (“Golden”). “Cruiiser” takes a romantic rock drive around the streets of Los Angeles. At the start of the nearly 10 circular minutes of “Void,” he sings, “A guitar leans against the couch / sometimes I pick it up and play / loosen and stretch / its ancient strings / until it sounds the way I feel.” Demonstrating a heretofore unexplored ability to rock fairly hard, the Red House Painters bow out on a complex, loud and high note that would have been poorly epilogued by the solo records had they been issued in correct order.
To his enormous credit, Kozelek re-emerged with Sun Kil Moon, a nominal new group with one holdover, drummer Anthony Koutsos, from RHP. (“Nominal” because the tour that followed the first album’s release involved a different set of musicians.) One of 2003’s finest releases, Ghosts of the Great Highway furthers the electro-acoustic dynamic range essayed on Old Ramon with lush shoegazing fuzz gusto in occasional service of typically beautiful material. It’s like everything that has always been great about the Red House Painters made a notch or two more exciting in the studio. The tempos are a hair brisker, the vocals more energized (but no less languid and haunting), the rhythm section just a little more present. The album begins (in “Glenn Tipton,” which further honors ’70s metal by being named for a Judas Priest guitarist but is more concerned with Kozelek’s father) with the pregnant historical observation (perhaps acquired from the Nick Tosches Liston biography) that “Cassius Clay was hated more than Sonny Liston,” a shorthand semaphore which sets the tone for an intricate, thoughtful and emotionally resonant album. Preceding “Last Tide,” which incorporates strings to a lovely effect, the thrilling “Salvador Sanchez” sets a slithering fuzz guitar figure against a nearly falsetto vocal about (?) another Mexican pugilist, giving Kozelek’s singing stiff sonic competition to exquisite effect; the song’s guitar solo unfurls like a torn banner in a slowly swirling storm. (“Pancho Villa,” which closes the album, is an acoustic version of the same song.) When the mood settles back to acoustic softness in “Gentle Moon,” the next track, “Lily and Parrots,” roars back with chunky 4/4 rock for balance. Even fitting in a joyful mariachi-tinged acoustic instrumental (“Si Paloma”) near the end, Ghosts of the Great Highway flows perfectly, a cinematic painting of enormous musical depth, delicacy and power.
Kozelek’s mischievous streak got the better of him on Tiny Cities, an album consisting entirely of softly played covers of Modest Mouse songs. Perhaps those who regard the Northwesterners’ compositional skills with awe will find this a fascinating prism of strong creative angles, but as a follow-up to an extraordinarily gorgeous web of noise and delicacy, it leaves a lot to be desired. The songs, performed with the first SKM album’s rhythm section of bassist Geoff Stanfield (Glorious/ex-Black Lab) and drummer Anthony Koutsos and a bunch of guests, are unfailingly pretty, gentle and faintly lachyrmose, as is Kozelek’s wont, but have the slight impact of leaves falling. Finely wrought and strongly disappointing.