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Mark Kozelek

+ {Red House Painters} + {Sun Kil Moon}

Born January 24, 1967, Massillion, Ohio, USA, the name of singer/songwriter/guitarist MARK KOZELEK for many music lovers will have little or no significance, but to fans of sad-core indie acts RED HOUSE PAINTERS and SUN KIL MOON, he’s up there with the greatest modern-day artists. Now that the latter Kozelek-led outfit has finally created a stir by way of 2014’s acclaimed `Benji’ set, it looks only a matter of time before universal appraisal.
Forming a bond with drummer Anthony Koutsos, while residing in Atlanta, Georgia, both parties (Mark had played for God Forbid) upped sticks to west coast San Francisco, coming up with the concept of RED HOUSE PAINTERS. In 1989, the pair duly recruited guitarist Gorden Mack and bassist Jerry Vessel, although straight from the get-go, this was Kozelek’s baby; his writing and distinctly melancholic musings dominating the group’s work.
Their unique debut album, DOWN COLORFUL HILL (1992) {*8}, was virtually a bare-bones demo which had arrived into the hands of British indie 4 a.d. supremo Ivo Watts-Russell via AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB miserabilist Mark Eitzel; the mighty Warner Bros gave it a shot in their homeland. Interestingly enough, their first (very rare) gig was at The Borderline in London during that autumn. Spiritually akin to the aforementioned AMC, the band’s debut set showcased Kozelek’s moody pastel-rock introspections; downbeat but often hauntingly melodic as exampled on closing piece `Michael’ plus elongated epics `Medicine Bottle’ and the title track. Though the press salivated over its dark complexities (comparisons were made with 70s-styled mood-fuelled troubadours CLIFFORD T. WARD, NICK DRAKE, DEAN FRIEDMAN, et al), the album sold negligibly.
A further couple of group releases followed in 1993, confusingly enough, both eponymously titled. The first of these, RED HOUSE PAINTERS {*9} – aka “Rollercoaster” – was a meandering but effective double set building on the wistfulness of the debut, in places almost: shoegazing (`Mistress’ and `Strawberry Hill’), folky (`Down Through’, opener `Grace Cathedral Park’ and the epic `Mother’) and kaleidoscopically dreamy (`Katy Song’ and `Dragonflies’).
From the same sessions, the other RED HOUSE PAINTERS {*6} – aka “Bridge” – was a single album featuring such endearing covers as PAUL SIMON’s `I Am A Rock’ and a haunting take of `The Star-Spangled Banner’, alongside acoustic-led compositions `Evil’, `Uncle Joe’ and the equally crepuscular 8-minute `Blindfold’.
It would be another two years before the group’s next album; Kozelek and Co undertaking a rare UK tour, their first Brit dates since appearing at The borderline. In the meantime, a four-track EP pitted a version of KISS’s `Shock Me’, alongside the unassuming `Sundays And Holidays’ and `Three-Legged Cat’.
OCEAN BEACH (1995) {*7} was a more robust set, Kozelek illustrating the breadth of his influences with a vinyl-only YES cover, `Long Distance Runaround’; no doubt a crime punishable by a public flogging in most indie bands’ books. Though critical plaudits continued to roll in (tracks `Cabezon’, `Summer Dress’ and `Brockwell Park’ all effective), the album again failed to sell in any great quantity.
With a subsequent move to Supreme/Island Records (surely a better home for the sparse melancholy of the bulk of Kozelek’s material), the group released SONGS FOR A BLUE GUITAR (1996) {*7}; Mack had now made way for Phil Carney. There was indeed a pop sensibility and a country/CRAZY HORSE flavour among the tracks; `Priest Alley Song’, `Have You Forgotten’ and the 12-minute `Make Like Paper’ proving head and shoulders above renditions of The CARS’ `All Mixed Up’, a 10-minute take of `Silly Love Songs’ and a repeat of the aforementioned YES song.
Unfortunately, Kozelek became enmeshed in legal problems, which effectively shelved “Old Ramon”. In the meantime, the singular singer/songwriter confounded many fans and critics with the independently released mini-set, ROCK’N’ROLL SINGER (2000) {*6}. Chances are there can’t be too many record collections around with a fair whack of both AC/DC and JOHN DENVER tracks; `Around And Around’ pinned to the latter. It’s also probably fair to say that no performers have ever attempted to cover both artists on the same record. All credit to KOZELEK then, who demonstrated that not only did he have a wide ranging taste, but that he had a hitherto relatively unannounced and quite startling talent for interpreting other writers in ways they couldn’t possibly have imagined. In addition to the title track, the half-hour set featured virtually unrecognisable covers of AC/DC’s `You Ain’t Got A Hold On Me’, `Bad Boy Boogie’ and the title track, transformed from balls-out rawk to fragile, suffering folk-blues.
The very fact that Mark had deemed DENVER’s work worthy of reinvestigation was significant in itself given that the late singer/songwriter was still the butt of many a joke and remained foolishly overlooked by many sneering critics. KOZELEK also masterminded Take Me Home: A Tribute to John Denver, as well as two compilations for an American AIDS charity, the Shanti Project.
Following on from the EP/mini-set, a full length solo release, WHAT’S NEXT TO THE MOON (2001) {*7} went one better and featured a whole album’s worth of AC/DC interpretations (including the three already released on the EP plus `Up To My Neck In You’), proving that his virtual reinvention of Bon Scott, Angus and Malcolm Young’s sweaty cock-rock muse was no fluke.
RED HOUSE PAINTERS’ shelved OLD RAMON {*7} eventually saw the light of day (via Sub Pop) in spring 2001, revealing a lighter, dare we say exuberant side, to the outfit’s mournful oeuvre. Polished off from rehearsals back in ‘98, melancholy Mark grazed into post-grunge, country-folk and sad-core shoegazing on the 71-minute set. As always, harrowing and haunting, one could cherry-pick tracks all day, but immediate semi-gems included `Michigan’, the fuzzy `Between Days’ and the lengthiest piece, `River’.
Sub Pop also offered up concert set, WHITE CHRISTMAS LIVE (2001) {*5}, available initially on a mail order-only basis and not exactly full of Xmas cheer or, for that matter, festive tracks. While another MK project was taking shape, the mainman once again made the season riveting and un-jolly, courtesy of several website-only solo releases, kicking off with 2006’s LITTLE DRUMMER BOY – LIVE (2006) {*6}; featuring his version of that classic traditional ditty.
Awash with a similar introspective splash-back, Kozelek’s SUN KIL MOON – named after Korean boxer, Sung-Kil Moon – his previous outfit were reincarnated. Together with Koutsos, fellow drummer Tim Mooney (from AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB) and bassist Geoff Stanfield (ex-BLACK LAB), the noble art theme was exercised on the quartet’s debut record, GHOSTS OF THE GREAT HIGHWAY (2003) {*8}. On it, Kozelek positioned his lush narratives on heroic but tragic boxing heroes, `Salvador Sanchez’ (very CRAZY HORSE), `Pancho Villa’ and the 14-minute `Duk Koo Kim’, while opening shot `Glenn Tipton’, referenced the worth of Sonny Liston to Cassius Clay; comparing also, singers JIM NABORS and BOBBY VINTON, and Tipton’s twin-guitar JUDAS PRIEST compadre, K.K. Downing. The ghosts of the morose RED HOUSE PAINTERS were all over the shop, mirrored so effectively on `Carry Me Ohio’ and the refined `Si Paloma’.
Licensed from their own Caldo Verde Records, Rough Trade came on board for unorthodox tribute set, TINY CITIES (2005) {*6}. MODEST MOUSE had long been a favourite of Kozelek’s (probably not the exiting Mooney), who treated songs such as `Jesus Christ Was An Only Child’, `Neverending Math Equation’, `Trucker’s Atlas’, `Space Travel Is Boring’, `Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes’ et al, as if his own.
Stretching out horizontally on full-set number three, SUN KIL MOON hopped aboard the ghost train to heartache heartland for APRIL (2008) {*8}. Evoking the listener with longer pieces than in his previous work, Kozelek breathed warmth into his wry tales of the nature surrounding him. From the folky `Tonight The Sky’ and `Tonight In Bilbao’ (20 minutes in total), to `Unlit Hallway’ (featuring WILL OLDHAM), `Moorestown’ and `Lost Verses’, the man drove his own Cadillac out of the dustbowl.
While one thinks that Swedish singer/songwriter JOSE GONZALEZ might’ve stole his thunder in recent times, longevity had become Kozelek’s trademark by way of ADMIRAL FELL PROMISES (2010) {*8}. Finger-pickingly astute with its traces of Spanish guitar and Flamenco-styled sketches, MK’s palette was hardly running out of oils and brushstrokes. The picturesque `Alesund’, `Third And Seneca’, `Half Moon Bay’, `The Learning Tree’ and `Church Of The Pines’, snapped a musical landscape of the man’s heart and soul, while sparse rhythms complemented a yearning of desolate places around him.
Not so enterprising but still painted from an easel mounted from inside his weary mind, Kozelek and Co (mainly drummers David Muench and Mike Stevens) reflected on rainy day nostalgia for album five, AMONG THE LEAVES (2012) {*7}. Drawing in the usual NEIL YOUNG, WILL OLDHAM or JEFF BUCKLEY comparisons, Mark stepped out from their footsteps on transient tracks such as the short-ish `That Bird Has A Broken Wing’, the long-windedly lothario-like `I Know It’s Pathetic But That Was The Greatest Night Of My Life’ and `The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman Vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man’.
While one can hardly ignore a plethora of KOZELEK solo outings (including ON TOUR: THE SOUNDTRACK (2012) {*6} documentary), a couple of collaborative albums surfaced in 2013: the electro-fied PERILS FROM THE SEA {*7} – alongside James Lavalle (of Album Leaf) – and the organic MARK KOZELEK & DESERTSHORE {*7} – with group alumni Mike Stevens, Phil Carney and pianist Chris Connolly. Reflecting on the recent deaths of Tim Mooney and SONGS: OHIA guru Jason Molina, the latter set shared an almost autobiographical diary of his times as an indie troubadour; pick of the bunch `Livingstone Bramble’, `Tavouris Cloud’, `Don’t Ask About My Husband’ and `Hey You Bastards I’m Still Here’.
Augmented by Owen Ashworth, Steve Shelley, Tim Lindsey and guests WILL OLDHAM and Chris Connolly from ventures past, SUN KIL MOON shone out from the cloudy skies for BENJI (2014) {*9} – incidentally named after a fave kids movie from the mid 70s. No stranger to referencing the dead (from revered “Sopranos” actor James Gandolfini to serial killer `Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes’), MK hardly shirks from morbidity (in also the shooting by Adam Lanza in `Pray For Newtown’), stirring a melting pot of tragedy and sadness without breaking into a eulogy.
Family deaths feature throughout, through failed suicide pact (the tragic tale of `Jim Wise’), freak accidents (by way of second cousin `Carissa’ and uncle in `Truck Driver’), or illness (grandmother `Micheline’), a cathartic Kozelek exorcised his demons through an autobiographical wake. A nod to his parents through `I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love’ and `I Love My Dad’, or bringing to life his melancholic childhood through the experience (and a few deaths) inside the 10-minute `I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same’, Mark just about covers everything.
SUN KIL MOON (basically Kozelek, Shelley and bassist Alex Schwartz) re-grouped in 2015 for another head-spinning and demanding 8-song/70-minute concept, UNIVERSAL THEMES {*8}. A running commentary of life through painstaking poetry, non-affiliates were left pondering what the fuss was all about. Then again, after a handful of intimate spins, Mark’s wry spiritual rapport with his inner being or life in general, becomes clear in the introspective “Benji”-esque `Little Rascals’ (about caring for his ageing cat), `Ali/Spinks 2’ (about the death of a family friend) and the stark `Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues’.
Kozelek, forever the pessimist and never opting to do things by halves (in terms of lengthy sets at least), the collaborative JESU / SUN KIL MOON (2016) {*7} was another swaggering episode in the man’s autobiographical canon. Clocking in a weary 80 minutes, the storyteller/diary aspect of each chapter – that incorporating ex-GODFLESH guitarist Justin Broadrick’s JESU shoegazing/grunge – the singer/narrator/musician meanders on `Good Morning My Love’, `Carondelet’ and the lo-fi, head-spinning `A Song Of Shadows’. Turning the amps down from 11 to a meditative acoustic level, Mark relays his reaction to the deaths of NICK CAVE’s son (on `Exodus’), YES man Chris Squire (on `Fragile’) and the self-evident `Last Night I Rocked The Room Like Elvis And Had Them Laughing Like Richard Pryor’. Whereas the 14-minute addendum, `Beautiful You’, had organic elements of a post-“Berlin” LOU REED, the Marmite-effect Kozelek touched hearts and minds without pushing out the envelope on his derivative dirges.
Bypassing the spoken word/poetry set recorded alongside Argentinian actor Nicolas Pauls, DREAMS OF CHILDHOOD (2015) {*5} – commendable as it was, giving all proceeds to an organization for the homeless – it was back to solo work for KOZELEK in the shape of covers set, SINGS FAVORITES (2016) {*7}. But somehow it worked within the pretext of Mark’s other studies. As par for the course, world-weary and stripped of any coherent soul, each brooding croon – CHRIS CONNOLLY on piano – was a sort of lament to his growing-up paeans and woes. From the odd miserabilist nostalgic piece (from `Send In The Clowns’ and `Moon River’ to `Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ and `Something Stupid’ – the latter with Minnie Driver), Mark and his guests worked up little sweat at dealing out renditions of Bob McDill’s `Amanda’, BOWIE’s `Win’ (featuring a sedate MIKE PATTON) and BOB SEGER’s `Mainstreet’; 10CC’s `I’m Not In Love’, ROY HARPER’s `Another Day’ and MODEST MOUSE’s `Float On’ also added panache to a plaintive set of songs; listen out too for backing vox from WILL OLDHAM, LOW’s Mimi Parker and SLOWDIVE’s Rachel Goswell.
The prolific MK – just turned 50 – continued to stretch the boundaries of acceptance on several long-players during the next few years. SUN KIL MOON (MK and drummer Steve Shelley adding bassist Nick Zubeck and sax-player Forrest Day) turning in no less than four; namely the 2-hour-long COMMON AS LIGHT AND LOVE ARE RED VALLEYS OF BLOOD (2017) {*7}; a second effort alongside Jesu: 30 SECONDS TO THE DECLINE OF PLANET EARTH (2017) {*6} – check out `A Dream Of Winter’ and `You Are Me And I Am You’; with Magik*Magik Orchestra: LIVE IN CHICAGO (2018) {*7} (the latter accompanied by bassist Josh Harden and guitarist Ramon Fermin), and THIS IS MY DINNER (2018) {*6}. Whether Common As Light’s spoken-word political detours and best bits, `God Bless Ohio’, `Philadelphia Cop’ and `Bergen To Trondheim’ edged it over the latter set’s reminiscent aspect of `Linda Blair’ and `David Cassidy’, that was one for fans to judge.
MK, meanwhile, was behind a couple of collaborations: YELLOW KITCHEN (2017) {*5} alongside Sean Yeaton; the jazzy …WITH BEN BOYE AND JIM WHITE (2017) {*6}, and the eponymous double-set, MARK KOZELEK (2018) {*7}. His most accessible record for yonks, the meandering miserabilist flair and LOU REED-like introspective word-play was best transmitted through `This Is My Town’, `Weed Whacker’, `My Love For You Is Undying’ and the self-deprecating epic, `The Mark Kozelek Museum’.
It seemed by SUN KIL MOON’s derivative I ALSO WANT TO DIE IN NEW ORLEANS (2019) {*6}, only the converted could stick with another double-disc/hour-and-a-half of Mark’s moribund mantras. Augmented by the lounge-jazz accompaniment of co-scribes Jim White (drums) and Donny McCaslin (sax), only the slightly schizoid `Day In America’ – which switched from another recent mass shooting north of Miami, to him recounting time wasted inadvertently jamming a BILL EVAN jazz tune – and possibly `I’m Not Laughing At You’, had any semblance of purpose. Fans of kittens might appreciate cabin-fever Mark’s method-to-his-madness, 23-minute disc-long `Bay Of Kotor’ – others might not!
Recalling that KOZELEK didn’t do things by halves, 2019’s JOEY ALWAYS SMILED {*4} shared the billing with multi-instrumentalist/vocalist PETRA HADEN, a solo artist in her own right whose CV boasted spells with THAT DOG, The DECEMBERISTS and BILL FRISELL. Curious musos might want to check out the pair’s pastoral mellowing of HUEY LEWIS & THE NEWS’ `The Power Of Love’, however high spots were limited in the storyteller’s diary of meandering muse. And maybe if there was space to breathe between similarly-themed sets that the highly prolific Mark churned out, one might anticipate his long-winded self-conscious sagas. Sure there were rare minutes when one could drift in and out of his rainy day reminiscing (`Parakeet Prison’ and `1983 MTV Era Music Is The Soundtrack To Outcasts Being Bullied By Jocks’ last 36 minutes in total), but one supposed one just had to be there to get in on whatever subtle namechecks and anecdotes lay therein.
To say KOZELEK was an acquired taste would be an understatement, and that was no different concerning his early 2020 sophomore set with pianist Ben Boye and Australian drummer Jim White. Unceremoniously entitled, 2 {*5}, for many music buffs the record would be 78 minutes one could never get back; for others a spoken-word classic. The recurring storytelling nature of this magnolia album grated after a while, and declined further when one thought back to the brush-strokes of his indie RED HOUSE PAINTERS creation. There were exceptions to the rule, and maybe `The Artist’ and/or `My Brother Loves Seagulls’ restored a bit of emulsion.
Only two months on, what the world under lockdown didn’t need was another self-indulgent zzz-list KOZELEK “spoken-word” double album a la ALL THE BEST, ISAAC HAYES (2020) {*5}. But with his lonesome, meticulous observational round-trip travelogue of North America, the man tells his anecdotal stories as if he’s sitting next to an unlucky dude on a long-haul plane journey; taking an age to land; Mark’s stalwart acquaintance, Petra Haden, impersonating a drunken passenger, props up one of the tracks; a rare highlight indeed.
© MC Strong 1996-2003/GRD // rev-up MCS Nov2014-Apr2020

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