Slowcore Week: ReDiScover - Red House Painters
There are few constants in modern music. Sure, there’s Dave Grohl's appearance on every 6/10 American rock album, Mark E Smith's 'album-a-year' policy and Keith Richards' eternal life; still, the trend is for blink-and-it’s-gone adoration. Thankfully, there is one certainty; that Mark Kozelek will continue to release some of the most beautiful, most intimate, most necessary, music known to man.
Under different guises, Mark, an Ohio native now just into his forties, has been writing music for around twenty years. From his work as the mainstay of Red House Painters (1993–2000) and Sun Kil Moon (2002–present), to solo offerings such as a Modest Mouse covers album (2005's Tiny Cities Made of Ashes), he has amassed an unparalleled catalogue of introspective, solemn gems. Much has been made of Mark's battle with depression, his aloof nature and 'sore thumb' demeanour, but this article, by Jordan Dowling and Hari Ashurst, will focus on the music that has made him one of the most vital songwriters of the past two decades. (Jordan Dowling)
Down Colorful Hill (1993)
Red House Painters' debut stands as a landmark in the history of slowcore. The album was put out by 4AD and Mark Kozelek takes musical cues from that label’s rich history such as This Mortal Coil, Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins, but transplants the spacey, Goth-tinged style of those groups onto confessional acoustic songs.
Kozelek creates a musical framework of hypnotic repetition that lets you lose yourself in deep grooves as the songs stretch out endlessly, propelled by Kozelek’s troubled and heartbreaking storylines. On (album highlight) ‘Medicine Bottle’, the acoustic guitar is buried beneath reverb that almost hisses as it trails the electric guitar and bass. With a faint strum relentlessly ticking like a clock, Kozelek pours out intensely personal material over the course of nine minutes. The dream-like aura of the music makes the triggered memories of “No more breath in my hair / Or ladies underwear / Tossed over the alarm clock” more poignant. The song’s “slowness” isn’t so much in the speed but the way in which it burns slowly, creating a landscape for Kozelek’s tale of missing love as it trudges toward the punishing conclusion of “And like a medicine bottle in my cabinet/ I’ll keep you/ And like a medicine bottle/ In my hand I will hold you”.
[Note the resemblance to ‘Lullaby’ or ‘Lazy’ from Low’s first album – it would take another thirteen years for Mark to actually collaborate with Alan Sparhawk, in Retribution Gospel Choir. – Slowcore Ed.]
As is characteristic of a lot of slowcore music the arrangements take on the function of soundscapes, illuminating Kozelek’s dark poetry, setting a context in the jagged, distorted delivery of “Lord kill the pain” which sounds sharp as a knife – the song jerks and stutters as Kozelek punctures its framework with further lines like “Kill my neighbours/ And all my family too/ They doubt my direction”. It’s darkly funny, and intensely human – something which is characteristic of Kozelek’s back catalogue. While his material can sometimes be unfairly maligned as too depressing or challenging to listen to, the honest human emotion at the centre of these songs is as vivid a portrait of life as anything in the canon of rock music. (Hari Ashurst)
Red House Painters (1993)
Red House Painters' sophomore full-length, like its follow up, was untitled and often known as “The Rollercoaster Album” after the album's cover and one of its standout tracks (located in Grace Cathedral Park, the title of the first track). Painted from a wider pallet than its predecessor, this offers moments of bleak piano-led isolation one minute and searing walls of guitar noise the next, far from the tectonic-plate-shifting evolution of 'Down Colorful Hill'. The two versions of 'Mistress' are the perfect example of this; the first version bursts in with bubbling distortion and pounding drums, never relenting as Mark wails somewhere around middle-distance, whilst the second version rests on a simple, almost playful, piano melody which Mark, his voice now much more restrained, explores with vocals several octaves below.
For most bands, offering two versions of the same song would be a sign of creative desperation, but the song is dragged to such polar opposites that there is no sign of repetition. Besides which there are many more highlights throughout the album, of which the most worthy of mention is 'Katy Song', then, the band’s calling card, and still crucial to the setlist, too: see the recent live album, Little Drummer Boy (2007).
Building over eight minutes, 'Katy Song' is one of Mark's most personal, and it is testament to his songwriting and delivery that lines such as “I can't follow my heart / if I can't feel what’s in it” and “you've got some kind of family there to turn to / and thats more than I could ever give you”, which are piercing and memorable whilst in the hands of so many others they would seem over-emotional and grating. Over its 70-minutes, The Rollercoaster Album is one of Kozelek's most varied albums (in all his incarnations), something which makes it one of the most enticing and welcoming, with each listen. (JD)
Over the course of a decade, Mark recorded and released a wealth of material, as part of Red House Painters and as a solo artist, as well as appearing in the films Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky. It’s impossible to do justice to his entire back catalogue (a very thorough discography is available (here)[http://www.sadreminders.com/discography/redhousepainters/index.php] but this does not mean it is of a lesser value than the ones critiqued in more detail. Some of Mark's greatest material is contained in works released in this period, from the understated beauty of Ocean Beach (especially ‘Shadows’ and 'Summer Dress', below), to the driving rock'n'roll of 'Between Days' and back to the heartbreaking acoustic laments like 'Have You Forgotten?' (and surprisingly effective homages to 1970s dinosaur acts) on Songs For A Blue Guitar.
[Same chords as ‘Karma Police’ if you were thinking of playing this to someone…]
[Not the album-version, but a treat for anyone who likes alternate takes… and Audrey Tautou. – Slowcore Ed.]
Even his slightly weaker albums are worth investigating, Ol' Ramon isn’t consistently brilliant but ‘Michigan’ is one of Kozelek’s very best and sees him attempting a slightly different tone – the mood is almost jubilant, celebrating the physical rather than the material, as he sings "I don’t need a house in Lake Michigan / I don’t need a purpose to plan things / I just want to feel your pulse again". It’s a terrific love song.
SUN KIL MOON
Ghosts of the Great Highway (2003)
On Kozelek’s first album under the guise of Sun Kil Moon he takes the vainglorious nature of boxing as his focus. In other hands, this might seem end up becoming black and white – tales of heroism and defeat – but the fine line between winning and losing is what Kozelek has always specialised in picking apart. In the depth of the songs lurks a tricky grey area, suggesting that winning and losing is rendered insignificant by the passing of time, when all that is left is faded memories. The album opens with a statistic: “Cassius Clay was hit more than Sonny Liston”. Cassius Clay is probably the most memorable boxer in the sport’s history, so why is it that his legacy is more enduring than Liston, even though he was hit more in a sport where punches count for points? Kozelek asks the same question of his memories of old lovers in ‘Carry Me Ohio’ – “Can’t count to all the lovers I’ve burned through / So why do I still burn for you? / I can’t say”. This line of questioning, of memory and of the past is where Kozelek’s obsessions lie on Ghost of the Great Highway.
Instead of Red House Painter’s short-term memory, and quick fixes, Sun Kil Moon finds Kozelek pondering infinites, old age and a youth seen with the benefit of hindsight. On the intensely romantic 'Last Tide' Kozelek wonders “Will you be here with me / When the warm sun turns to ash / And the last tide disappears”. Death is apocalyptic and abstracted by time; the end of the self is the end of the world, and Kozelek wonders whether memory survives and what will remain. 'Duk Koo Kim' returns to the slow-burning style that Red House Painters perfected, stretching its arms over fourteen minutes, and finds Kozelek chock full of wizened desire, with only the past for comfort. See Natalie Shaw's piece, to follow.
Ghosts of the Great Highway is a record that presents itself as a culmination of the themes and emotions that have characterised Kozelek’s entire career. It’s one for the ages, a record with true depth and soul, a rare modern example where an artist is allowed the scope to mine a subject without commercial pressure; an album in the truest sense, a film instead of an MTV-clip in a modern climate dominated by the needs of the attention-deficient. (HA)
After the swirling rock of Ghosts... Mark retreated and settled down again for the follow-up LP April, which proved that no matter how far the accelerator-pedal was pressed, or released, he still had the knack for writing understated classics. Where Ghosts... had a definite 'band' feel (re-uniting three members of RHP), April felt more like a solo album, comprised of bare-bone beauties that burned at a much lower heat than its predeccesor.
It was also more consistent, possibly Mark's most consistent to date, with the triumvirate of 'Lucky Man', 'Unlit Hallway', and 'Heron Blue' at the centre of the album being particularly noteworthy. Each song blends into the next, each one an ode to lost love, a love unnamed but ever-present, and each one throws up Mark's typical vivid imagery into new (albeit dimmed) light.
As always there is room enough for personal interpretation. In 'Heron Blue' Mark sighs; “her baby skin / her old black dress / her hair it twists around her neck / constricts and ties like ruthless veins / 'til sleep she overcomes her”, which may suggest death, but if so: at the hands of whom? As always, no answers are given amongst the controlled spirals of lightly plucked guitars.
Towards the final third of the album lies 'Tonight The Sky', an epic, passing ten minutes, that seems to contrast the rest of the album, sounding closer to the expansive rock sound of Ghosts... than the rest of the (shy, retiring) April. After fifty minutes of soft&clear low-tone guitars, Mark steps on the distortion pedal and lets the guitars growl throughout. Think ‘Cortez the Killer’ by Neil Young, although Kozelek’s voice has a sensuality, and in this case an affection for his sister – apparently abducted – that Young could rarely approach. Whilst a fantastic track on its own, it does slightly upset the rhythm of the album. Yet it also shows that despite the label of 'predictable' being constantly attached to him and his catalogue it's hard to know, even after nearly twenty years, just what to expect. (JD)
Although his sound evolved after the early Red House Painters records (sometimes grouped with the UK’s “shoegazers” due to his temporary residence here), Mark Kozelek is still regarded as one of the most important figures in slowcore. Mark steered clear of the alternative rock and grunge that were the most popular outlets for America’s more angst-ridden musicians, in the early 1990s. Kozelek has been accused of being off the scale with his own angst, but delivers lyrics with more depth and craft than most of his contemporaries; the result is often crushing, and always emotionally engaging.
That Mark Kozelek has been able to make a career-best album some seventeen years after his debut is remarkable, and a testament to slowcore’s longevity; proof that behind the style is real substance, and that he’s a songwriter with the potential to endure as long as any you care to name. (HA)