After helming seminal sadcore pioneers Red House Painters through five frequently wonderful albums, singer/songwriter/guitarist Mark Kozelek unveils his debut solo work, and it's possibly his most bizarre turn yet in a career not exactly noted for pandering to the lowest common denominator. "Rock 'N' Roll Singer" is 29 minutes long, contains three of his own compositions, a John Denver song and three from the early career of AC/DC, believe it or not. Kozelek has been responsible for some astonishing reconstructions of other people's material in the past - the Red House Painters' version of Wings' "Silly Love Songs" is wracked with scorched-earth guitar soloing that could make Neil Young weep - but the kindest thing that could be said about the interpretations presented here is that he makes the songs his own - slow, pained and languid, with all the energy I would assume the originals possessed sucked out. They're not actually bad, exactly, merely deathlessly unmemorable, which is a crippling disadvantage coming from a man who has played this trick so much more successfully in the past. The three Kozelek originals that fill out "Rock 'N' Roll Singer" fare rather better, being imbued with the kind of dusty mystery and subtle melodic charm that the Red House Painters could knock out even on a bad day. But they barely compensate for a debut solo album that looks disappointingly like a half-measure from a man who normally pours everything into his music.
MARK KOZELEK What's Next To The Moon (Badman)
In which Mark Kozelek, master of the bizarre career move, throws a curveball yet again. "What's Next To The Moon" finds the former Red House Painter performing acoustic covers of ten Bon Scott-era AC/DC songs, more elaborate versions of three of which ("Bad Boy Boogie", "You Ain't Got A Hold On Me" and "Rock 'N' Roll Singer") also appeared on last year's "Rock 'N' Roll Singer" album. And whilst this appears to be the sort of project that just couldn't work, the DC's strutting, big balled cock-rock rendered flaccid by the Kozelek's slow-motion sadcore, it actually lines up as his most entertaining half-hour since the demise of his old band. Admittedly it still requires some mental compensation before you can accept hearing the man who once wrote lyrics like "No more breath in my hair/Or ladies' underwear tossed up over the alarm clock" singing choruses such as "It was love at first feel/love at first feel/love at first feel" or "I'm gonna walk all over you/I'm gonna walk all over you", but once you've adjusted your mindset you're free to appreciate that Kozelek has zoned in on the essential vulnerability that runs through these songs. The garb might have changed - AC/DC's songs bristle with new and unfamiliar concepts like verse/chorus structures and can be neatly dispensed with in under three minutes - but he's still playing the underdog underneath it all.
MARK KOZELEK White Christmas Live (Sub Pop)
"White Christmas Live" is a limited edition (of 5000, apparently) CD containing completely solo and acoustic recordings made in Sweden and Norway during November and December of 2000. Naturally, given Kozelek's current heavy metal fixation that means a hefty quantity of AC/DC covers are included - "Rock 'N' Roll Singer", "Up To My Neck In You" and "What's Next To The Moon" - none of which sound markedly different to the studio versions (Kozelek's, not AC/DC's, of course!). There's a smattering of material from the then-unreleased posthumous final Red House Painters album, "Old Ramon", including the sweet 'n' bleary-eyed love song to his cat, "Wop-A-Din Din", and a high speed pick through the majestic "Cruiser". A few old Red House Painters songs receive an acapella dusting down (none from their finest long player, "Down Colorful Hill", unfortunately), there's a fine new song "Admiral Fell Promises" and an even finer untitled tune, laden with childhood wistfulness, hidden away at the end of the disc. There's even an attempt on (in the sense of assassination, near enough) Irving Berlin's titular seasonal work. And there's the odd outbreak of Kozelek's comedy genius, believe it or not, something that you'd never experience on any of his studio outings: reporting that a backstage commentator suggested that "You showed a different side of yourself tonight", he responds, "What, like a pissed-off side?". "Yes", counters the b.c., "But I think they liked it!". All of which is great stuff for the Kozelek devotee, but probably thin gruel for anybody else.
MARK KOZELEK If You Want Blood (Badman)
For anyone whose fascination with Mark Kozelek's acoustic interpretations of the AC/DC songbook hasn't yet been entirely sated, "If You Want Blood" tantalisingly presents almost all of the former Red House Painter's two solo CDs ("Rock 'N' Roll Singer" and "What's Next To The Moon") in one lavish double vinyl import. (The track that got away is the version of "You Ain't Got A Hold On Me" originally to be found on "Rock 'N' Roll Singer".) Live versions of "Rock 'N' Roll Singer" and "Up To My Neck In You" are also included: according to the credits they were taped the night after the versions found on the "White Christmas Live" CD reviewed elsewhere, but my imperfectly scientific A/B comparison reckons they're identical, right down to the little moan Kozelek emits at the end of the former.
So, the real reason for purchase of this latest MK package is to obtain all these very passable tunes on vinyl, a format that suits them admirably. These acoustic performances sound marvellous on the black stuff, it has to be admitted, with every twang and quiver of guitar string and vocal cord presented in a far more open and engaging fashion than on the CDs. Attention is drawn to the smaller details, such as the faint halo of reverb around Kozelek's voice during the title track. And he really has made these songs his own, to the extent that it's almost impossible to imagine what the AC/DC originals must sound like. In fact, it would be just as absurd to visualise that band tearing through a cover of, for example, Red House Painters' "Medicine Bottle" as it would any of the ten Young, Young and Scott originals tackled here.
It's a shame, though, that "If You Want Blood" doesn't contain the entire Kozelek solo back catalogue: a 4 LP set of "Rock 'N' Roll Singer", "What's Next To The Moon" and "White Christmas Live" would have done an even better job, but in its absence "If You Want Blood" is what it is, and it is good. Now, can we have some new songs, please?
MARK KOZELEK / NEIL HALSTEAD Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester 30 October 2007
This was my first visit to Manchesters Dancehouse Theatre, and the venue certainly made a favourable impression: with superb acoustics, serviceable seating and a refined atmosphere no danger of hapless audience members being drenched in beer, for example its almost like an attempt to reconstruct the Bridgewater Hall on the head of a pin.
Neil Halstead of Slowdive and Mojave 3 near-fame also made a significant initial impression. With his bushy beard, tweedy jacket and diffident manner hes the spitting image of Whispering Bob Harris. Armed with a small sets worth of pleasant songs about writing your name in the sand and drugs for when youre lonely, hes like an acoustic Field Mice (Field Mouse?). Theres a lot of gazing intently at his shoes as well: old habits die hard.
A hush of expectation follows an announcement requesting that all mobile phones be turned off, which is shattered by the concession You can still talk, though! Looking like Michael Douglas younger brother, Mark Kozelek stomps on with a Hi everyone and fumbles towards Salvador Sanchez, from his Sun Kil Moon projects debut album Ghosts Of The Great Highway, which provided almost half of tonights main set. Fellow Red House Painters refugee Phil Carney joins him for the second song Michigan, from that bands swansong Old Ramon, I later learn causing the amount of unnecessary fretwiddling and inter-song tuning-up to increase exponentially. Covers of Modest Mouses Truckers Atlas and Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes are set to exactly the same tune. Kozelek seemed on the kind of bantering form that belies his tricksy live reputation, chiding at one point Yall seem kinda scared of me! Theres discussion of local boxing sensation Ricky Hatton, and when he later tries to apologise to an audience member hed previously chastised for coughing, the lack of response was amusingly explained by the fact that the stricken spectator had already left.
The house lights were quickly brought up following Kozeleks sharp exit at the end of Duk Koo Kim, but after a few minutes of clapping, hollering and stomping (Thats what I needed to hear, that foot-stomping shit, thats when I know its serious) he returned alone, sparking off a jazz odyssey that eventually coalesced into AC/DCs Whats Next To The Moon. He followed it with a stately rendition of the Red House Painters evergreen Mistress. If the previous hour had been of the same standard as that final 15 minutes, it wouldve made a satisfying evenings entertainment. As it was, there was precious little spark or life to be had, let alone the gentle redemption that a good wallow in this most miserable of music can provide. It seemed as though nobody on the stage tonight really wanted to be there, and its hard to avoid the conclusion that the musicians apathy had a similar effect on parts of the audience as well.
MARK KOZELEK St Ann’s Church, Manchester 8 August 2011
Not for the first time, it’s a disappointing night out in Manchester in the company of Mark Kozelek, the erstwhile Red House Painter sometimes found trading as Sun Kil Moon. He embraces the venue’s ornate 18th century interior by immediately asking the vicar to turn the lights down or, failing that, off, meaning he plays in a gathering gloom turning into reasonably complete darkness. Suddenly the restricted view suffered by anybody not sitting close to the aisle doesn’t seem so much of an issue. Nevertheless, when Mark repeatedly complains about the distance separating him from the audience a few dozen hardy disciples move to the floor in front of him, all the better to worship at his feet.
There couldn’t be a more thumpingly down-to-earth contrast between my most recent gig-going experience – all seven of Björk’s “Biophilia” concerts – and this, where there’s in the neighbourhood of no visual element whatsoever, and even less chance of the Koz at some point donning a ginger frightwig or playing an iPad. More concerning is that, after the first song, Mark’s vocals are drowned with synthetic reverb, a disaster for anyone hoping to be able to make out his lyrics (which, saturated with misery thought they may be, usually repay study). Given that he rearranges his tunes to conform to a standard template and then liberally decorates them with flamenco flourishes of questionable artistic validity, the lyrics are pretty much all that’s left to hang on to, and we’re denied even that gentle thrill of recognition. I identify a few songs – Modest Mouse cover “Tiny City Made Of Ashes”, “Heron Blue”, “Glenn Tipton” and sole Red House Painters tune of the evening “Mistress” – but it seems characteristic of the gig that the most interesting of the unfamiliar songs, a concise, heartfelt classic-in-the-making called “Natural Light”- turns out to be a Casiotone For The Painfully Alone cover.
If he’d treated us to a few more of the songs people kept enthusiastically calling out for, rather than devoting himself to satisfying his own artistic requirements, this could have been a far pleasanter evening. But the Koz never gives the impression that he’s here for anybody’s benefit but his own, and given the litany of complaints about Britain he strung through the evening it’s debatable whether even he gets much out of his visits here himself. Still, having been here before my expectations were appropriately adjusted even as I bought my ticket, so I can’t in all honesty claim to be disappointed.
Red House Painters