Mark Kozelek has had an intriguing career. In 1992, his band Red House Painters had their first collection of songs, which were essentially demos, released on the illustrious 4AD Records. The record, entitled Down Colorful Hill, only contained six songs, but each one is either a masterpiece or damn near sonically perfect. One can tell even now that the amount of care and precision that went into those demos was rare and the results are what make the record timeless and immortal.
Just after that Mark and his band recorded two even better records. Neither of which were titled, but they are simply known to their audience as the Rollercoaster and Bridge albums because of the simple grainy, sepia images that adorn the covers, so lonely and apt for the material that was contained behind the striking photographs. The Rollercoaster album is a double record clocking in at seventy plus minutes and it is perhaps the one true indispensable release that Kozelek has ever created. In brief, the record is an absolutely amazing collection of melancholy songs that are so gut-wrenching and heartfelt that it is almost difficult to imagine that he could even bother continuing to write any more songs after these were penned. Go out and buy this album if you don’t own it and can be persuaded to buy something that isn’t made simply to be sold and that certainly is not looking for radio play via catchy, soul devoid lyrics and genre rip-off music.
The Red House Painters released a few more records before Kozelek decided to release a few short albums under his own name, one of which is a surprisingly pleasant AC/DC covers record done primarily acoustically in his own style. He must have craved the band setting again, but wanted to pursue it without the name Red House Painters attached because since then he has gone on to release two more records now under the name Sun Kil Moon. Strangely enough, the latter and most recent of these releases is an all Modest Mouse covers record called Tiny Cities. Shortly after it came out he set out on a solo tour, which has yielded his newest cd released in late 2006, on his own Caldo Verde Records. This double cd is once again released under his own name and was recorded at various locations last year. It spans every incarnation of his career and includes two original songs recorded live during that tour that have not yet been released elsewhere.
The cd itself begins on the wrong foot with “Trucker’s Atlas,” a Modest Mouse song with a terrible title that unfortunately does not do his repertoire any justice. Not much needs to be said about it except that at his prime, Mark Kozelek was stunningly original and almost untouched by anyone else in the industry. By doing an album of covers by some second rate rock group in earnest is selling himself short to say the least. There are two other Modest Mouse covers on the collection as well that can be skipped before the first note is plucked on his guitar. The highlight of the double cd is, not surprisingly, the Red House Painters material by far. Even though, stylistically he has changed during time and has lost the isolated passion that he had early on, these songs still inspire and strike a chord in the listener. “Katy Song,” for instance, is one of the most honest and undecorated lyrics of lost love recently written. “Glass on the pavement under my shoe. Without you, what does my life amount to?” he sings. It may not read like all that much here, but if you heard it sung in its intended form, it all works so unbelievably well. One can almost picture a jaded Kozelek wandering the streets alone at night. The song “Mistress” is another early gem, that although now does not match up to its original recorded incarnation, still makes most of his later material sound lifeless by comparison. “The attention I need is much more serious. A kind of weight you couldn’t lift, even if your cheap career depended on it. I need someone much more mysterious.” Alone, these lines don’t require much accompaniment yet he manages to make them so effective through song. He had such a great ability to shamelessly respond to his previous lovers with a rare concoction of intermingled bile and sorrow.
The post Red House Painters material is hit and miss. There are some brilliant tracks like twelve minute “Duk Koo Kim” from the first Sun Kil Moon record, Ghosts of the Great Highway, although it was actually written with the Red House Painters several years before. A few of the later Red House Painters songs are quite wonderful too like “Michigan” and “Cruiser,” both of which appeared on Old Ramon in 1998. The latter even has embarrassingly silly lyrics, but the trajectory behind the song is seamless. As intimated at earlier, the Tiny Cities material is garbage. Save your money for reissued and expanded cds of albums that you already own rather than supporting this pap. His collection of AC/DC covers from 2001, titled What’s Next to the Moon, is far superior because it is so much more difficult to take the record seriously and yet it is convincingly successful in its own right whereas this Modest Mouse covers thing is an uninteresting misstep in his career. The two new songs on this collection, “Unlit Hallway” and “Moorestown,” are quite good too, however. It will be interesting to see if these see the light of day along with another great so far unreleased track, “Admiral Fell Promises,” which appeared on his other yuletide live cd, White Christmas, released on Sub Pop Records in 2001. There is also an anomaly in the form of a traditional Christmas song, “Little Drummer Boy,” for which the album is named after, but it doesn’t require more than one listen. Even his rendition of “White Christmas” a few years earlier was much better.
All in all, the double album is good, but his cd is more suitable for the completest rather than those interested in a compendium of Mark Kozelek’s music. The original studio recorded versions of almost every track on this live collection are far superior. He still shines brighter than most of his contemporaries and he outshines most modern independent drivel by light years even though Mark’s music isn’t near as effective and necessary as it was when it came out on its original releases.