RED HOUSE PAINTERS/HEIDI BERRY Hop and Grape, Manchester University 29/10/93
...not that everybody loves the Lemonheads though. Back at the bar, lead Red House Painter Mark Kozelek has just started a lengthy, and not entirely unjustified, tirade of abuse against Evan Dando, "Rock Songwriter Of The Year", and I feel relieved I'm not wearing my Lemonheads tour T-shirt...
This man really does not want to be famous. Sloping on at the start of the set, looking like a cross between Neil Young and neil from The Young Ones, he chats with the audience, takes requests, signs autographs mid-song, curtails the set because he's "feeling ill", even refuses to play an encore unless an overly-talkative member of the front row swaps places with the person standing behind. And still we love it.
The Red House Painters sound like Leonard Cohen on a Very Bad Day Indeed...Kozelek's songs are about old girlfriends, miscreant friends, his mother, and old girlfriends, all with a beats-per-minute rating that struggles to hit double figures. During an eighty-minute concert they played only nine songs, but still we loved them. Only one song off the new album, "The one with the bridge on the cover", notes Mark, obviously not too good with titles since he neglected to think one up for the band's second and third albums, but it was "Uncle Joe", the best; lots from the second album, including "Take Me Out", "Katy Song" and an a cappella "Grace Cathedral Park", and from the debut and bestest "Down Colorful Hill" album the wondrous "24", with the whole crowd joining in with the chorus, although since it consisted of the lines "Oldness comes with a smile to every God-given child/Oldness comes to rile the youth who dream suicide" a Queen-gig type singalong this was not.
In sum, the Red House Painters are idiosyncratic beyond belief, but if you've acquired a taste for what they supply it doesn't matter a jot. Heidi Berry, by the way, is/are a rather disturbing cross between Fairport Convention and Mazzy Star: the leaner years of the self proclaimed, and possibly truthfully, 'best record label in the world', Creation, are now referred to as their "Heidi Berry period". 'Nuff said, I think.
RED HOUSE PAINTERS Ocean Beach (4AD)
Moody monochrome photos of windmills, a sleeve made of what looks like crudely recycled cardboard and a cutesy double 10" vinyl package - it must be the return of Americas cheeriest musical export since Weird Al Yankovic. Little has changed in the downbeat, introverted world of Mark Kozelek since his last album, and stunning complementary live shows, eighteen months ago - hes the sort of person who, if he found himself living next door to the Tindersticks, would ask them to turn the frivolity down - which is great news for those of us addicted to his giggling ways.
Starting with the gorgeous and stunningly recorded instrumental "Cabezon", "Ocean Beach" meanders through the usual Painters fare - mellow, reflective laments for lost love, punctuated by the Highly Inappropriate Cover Version: following their stodgy reading of "I Am A Rock", and inspirational reinterpretation of Kiss "Shock Me" (I preferred the extended version with the string quartet meself), the band alienate the other third of Rocksigs membership by cavorting through...Yes "Long Distance Runaround"! Very pleasant, although I confess to not knowing the original.
The heavy psychodramatic element that plagued the more intense tracks on their last two albums has been almost eradicated, save on "Drop", which takes up the entire fourth side and mumbles gorily about returning to see a former lover and embracing her sickness - yeuch! Add to this the almost jolly feel of some of the tracks - the slow and stately childhood anthem "San Geronimo", and the terrific jazzy acoustic bass outro to "Over My Head" that could easily be on the run from an "Astral Weeks" session, and youre forced to conclude that "Ocean Beach" is the Red House Painters most consistently satisfying work since their debut of demos "Down Colorful Hill". Lovely, in a gentle and reflective kinda way.
RED HOUSE PAINTERS Songs For A Blue Guitar (Island)
This was intended as Mark Kozeleks debut solo release, but somewhere along the way it mutated into the fifth Red House Painters album - not that youd be able to tell the difference, as "Songs For A Blue Guitar" is as full of slow-motion sadcore as any of their other works. If anything Kozelek sounds as if hes almost veering on the edge of the possibility of being near to happy at times, witness the stomping laugh-a-minute (well, it is only two minutes long...) "I Feel The Rain Fall" and lines like "I picked up my brush/Painted a blue guitar/And I ripped off the chords from Bron-Y-Aur". The title track draws heavily from Mazzy Stars wondrous "Fade Into You", and the one-note guitar solo in "Make Like Paper" sounds like Sonic Youth in mittens. Theres the usual slew of strange covers as well: Yes "Long Distance Runaround" makes a reappearance from the "Ocean Beach" album, here in full rawk mode with Kozelek singing through a snorkel, by the sounds of it, The Cars "All Mixed Up" evokes pleasant memories of the Painters version of Kiss "Shock Me", with its stately, almost waltz-like arrangement, and best of all an eleven minute stormtroop through Wings "Silly Love Songs" peopled with the sort of guitar abuse that suggests Neil Young checking out a new PA, and ends with Kozelek hollering the "How can I tell you about my loved one?" line until the Improbable Cover Version Police cart him off. Maybe "Songs For A Blue Guitar" doesnt scrape the bottom of the emotional barrel in the same way that the Red House Painters can manage at their best (namely one or two tracks on their stunning debut of demos "Down Colorful Hill"), but neither does it plod aimlessly or contain any of Kozeleks screaming-fit-as-art experiments. Great stuff, even though I had to buy it on CD (seethe!).
RED HOUSE PAINTERS Retrospective (4AD)
"Retrospective" is a long-overdue two CD summation of the Red House Painters' four album (and one single) career with uberlord-of-all-things-ethereal Ivo Watts-Russell's 4AD label. The highlights of the Red House Painters' brand of sadcore in its purest, slow motion form are cherry-picked by Ivo on the first CD, a 13 track selection that sounds uneven and disjointed initially - possibly due to the way that these songs have been presented outside their original context for the first time ever - almost as if the tracks picked and running order have been randomly assigned. Added to which there's the inevitable "How could he leave out ?" arguments that most compilations generate (for me it's the fact that space is found for a mere two tracks from their stunning debut "Down Colorful Hill"). But stick with it and "Retrospective" works on you with a kind of hypnotic charm: highlights include their stately cover of Kiss' "Shock Me", "Medicine Bottle" (possibly Mark Kozelek's best composition) and the almost unbearably poignant good-boy-gone-bad (or possibly just gone) take of "Michael", a lament for Kozelek's best friend. Added to which an informative booklet tells you even more than you'd probably ever want to know about the Red House Painters in typically sumptuous v23 style.
The second CD, subtitled "demos - outtakes - live 1989-95" adds little to the legend: whilst the inclusion of a Parisian live take on "Japanese To English" and a 4 track demo of "Over My Head", for example, is undoubtedly nice, Red House Painters songs don't seem to be the product of the sort of lengthy, tortuous gestation period that might make such attic clearings illuminating listening. (Their first album, remember, was basically a mildly varnished version of the demo tape that found its way to Ivo.)
If you haven't yet heard any of the Red House Painters' sepia-tinged exercises in heartbreak and anguish "Retrospective" is certainly one way of remedying that oversight, but my advice would be to go straight for the jugular and invest in "Down Colorful Hill" to hear this idiosyncratic band at their considerable best.RED HOUSE PAINTERS Old Ramon (Sub Pop)
Here we have the last dying embers of the Red House Painters' misery cook-out: having been politely escorted off 4AD's premises for delivering an exceptional album of raging guitar rock and Wings, Cars and Yes covers that Ivo Watts-Russell thought didn't quite fit in his portfolio, not even the band's new major label taskmasters could stomach "Old Ramon". Originally recorded on the cusp of 1997 and 1998 it lay around unheard and unloved until given its freedom by Sub Pop, the label that brought you Nirvana. And perhaps it needed that time, space and perspective to be appreciated for itself and not have judgement coloured by the legacy of the band's previous adventures in emotional dysfunction, because believe it or not "Old Ramon" is the Red House Painters' happy album, all things being relative.
"Wop-A-Din-Din" is a breezy, chiming love song about a cat, lyrical territory Mark Kozelek has scavenged in before for the b-side "Three-Legged Cat". "Cruiser" celebrates the joys of driving through California whilst listening to Social Distortion and Hanoi Rocks, and "Golden" hunts the thrift-store bins for the vinyl back catalogue of a forgotten childhood hero whose identity remains a secret (although I'd hazard a guess at Bob Seger). The final incarnation of the band support all these disparate musings with a slow-motion music that suggests, however distantly, the stadium-strangling muscularity of mid 70s Aerosmith or Boston. It's all a world away from the pallid, wracked likes of the "Down Colorful Hill" album - the discful of demos that originally landed Kozelek a contract with 4AD - and does a deal to explain his more recent activity, e.g. the album of acoustic AC/DC covers and the role in Cameron Crowe's affectionate homage to beardy rock, "Almost Famous". In fact, pursued by cruel irony to the end, "Old Ramon" is almost commercial and content enough to have been the album for which the Red House Painters finally got paid.