Recently my friend Lisa e-mailed me from New York to tell me to hurry out and see Shopgirl, the Steve Martin/Claire Danes/Jason Schwartzman movie. And not because it features two of the sexiest men in movies: one older, grayer and super-smart, the other floppy-haired, big-nosed and delicious. The reason I needed to see it was because tucked into a supporting role is Mark Kozolek, he of the Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon. He's got a bit part as a rock musician, and some of his songs are used on the soundtrack. Oh, happy day. That surely made the movie better than it really was.
Mark Kozolek has one of the most singularly heartbreaking voices I've ever heard, and it never fails to give me chills. I own every Red House Painters album, every solo effort, and every release by his latest band, Sun Kil Moon. The first time I heard his voice on KUSF about 10 years ago as I was driving around in my car, I almost had to pull over, it was so dark and inviting. His voice is always way too loud in the mix, so you can't help but either be sucked in or really annoyed. The songs are slow and dreamy, dark and minimal, with long repeating endings that cycle over and over until you fall into a trance. His music is addictive, and I was pretty obsessed with the Red House Painters for several years, going so far as to write and record a whole album influenced by the band's masterpiece, Ocean Beach.
Toward the end of his Red House Painters run, Kozolek started drifting away from writing the meandering, tragic relationship enders that identified him, and began experimenting with covering some of his favorite rock classics from his teen stoner years. He would take a song like "Long Distance Runaround" by Yes, and give it the RHP treatment, meaning slowing it down to a total dirge and singing it like he was on a morphine drip. Or he would take "Silly Love Songs" by Wings and turn it into an homage to Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer." He began to do this more and more, and what seemed at first like merely an ironic exercise in pop deconstruction became something more heartfelt. Like Isaac Hayes on Hot Buttered Soul, he had found a way to take somewhat cheesy pop songs and give them a whole new mood and meaning.
In between the demise of RHP and the rise of Sun Kil Moon, Kozolek released his incredible What's Next to the Moon, where he covered an entire batch of AC/DC songs in his inimitable stripped-down style. It was a tour-de-force, and he took those dirty, hangdog Bon Scott lyrics to a whole new level of nuance and poetry. A truly astounding feat. You have to give the guy credit, if he wasn't feeling the original songwriting inspiration coming, instead of giving us a batch of mediocre songs, he took something that only he could hear in the songs of AC/DC and carved the friggin' David out of a crusty hunk of rock n' roll stone.
His latest effort with Sun Kil Moon, entitled Tiny Cities, is absolutely beautiful. And as I was listening to it the first few times, I looked at the credits and realized that the songs were not his, but were all written by the same person. I racked my brain to try and figure out who it could be, but had not heard any of the songs before. They were so cool, and detached and narcotic, very much like Mark's own songs. When I hopped online to find out more, I was completely shocked. It's an entire album covering the songs of Modest Mouse! Now there's a band I have never been much impressed by, I even saw them once and was pretty non-plussed. I've heard a couple of albums here and there but nothing has ever grabbed me. Apparently Mark heard more, because once again he has spun gold out of straw. Tiny Cities is brilliant -- lovely, delicate and wide-open like a deserted highway in the middle of the night. Every song boasts lyrics that are cutting, bleak and kind of sadly funny. They're all about driving, and finding the spiritual in the mundane, and being angry and frustrated with your friends, and wanting security and safety. The arrangements are spare -- acoustic guitar, quiet bass & drums, some little strings and harmonies here and there -- deep and pretty and altogether appropriate.
Run out and get Tiny Cities, whether or not you're a Modest Mouse fan. Perhaps that would serve to intensify the experience, but I can't imagine it gets any better that it already is. And while you're at it get What's Next to the Moon, Ocean Beach, and the Rollercoaster album (so called because it has a rollercoaster on the cover). Then get under the covers and prepare to wallow for several weeks, months, perhaps years. Mark Kozolek will not disappoint you. Well, unless you go see him live. He can be notoriously ornery and self-indulgent onstage. Trust me, I've seen him more times than I can count.
When I played this album at work, my twenty-something co-worker immediately was like "Hey, wait a sec, are these all Modest Mouse songs?" I just shrugged, yeah. But they are so much more.