Red House Painters
Red House Painters
The context: If Mark Kozelek had formed Red House Painters recently, they'd probably be called emo—The Promise Ring even borrowed some of the band's lyrics on its debut album. But in the early '90s, they were considered slowcore or sadcore, tags that aligned them with artists like American Music Club, Low, and Idaho. Like American Music Club, Red House Painters were based in San Francisco, and AMC leader Mark Eitzel has been credited with helping the fledgling outfit secure a deal on then-tastemaking English label 4AD. RHP's first release, 1992's six-song Down Colorful Hill, was a seemingly unmatchable emotional tour de force, but Kozelek kept it coming the following year, with two self-titled discs distinguished by their cover art. The first one, released in May, is the "Rollercoaster" record, and October's follow-up—made up of songs from the same recording sessions—is the "Bridge" record. While the latter certainly has its share of highlights—including a rocked-out version of the first Red House Painters' "New Jersey" and a great take on Simon & Garfunkel's "I Am A Rock," which foreshadowed Kozelek's obsession with covers—the former stands as his crowning achievement in a discography that has placed him alongside the greatest songwriters of all time. Though Red House Painters' albums were always a product of Kozelek's vision, he stopped using the name after 2001's Old Ramon, choosing instead to issue subsequent releases either under his own name or as Sun Kil Moon.
The greatness: Clocking in around 76 minutes and exploring all manner of pain and sadness, Red House Painters seems like too much to enjoy in one sitting, but Kozelek does an excellent job of exploring a range of emotions and situations from his "cold, solitary kingdom," and presenting them atop music that's equal parts dreamy, dense, dark, and, most importantly, hypnotically melodic. Most of the credit for the instrumental magic goes to Kozelek, but the restraint shown by his bandmates, most notably drummer Anthony Koutsos, makes everything feel even more intense and important. Even when "Mistress" goes from a solo piano piece to a full-band explosion (both versions appear on the album), there's still a less-is-more feel, making for the kind of rock song that has few comparisons. (One is the souped-up version of "New Jersey" on the Bridge album.) Some of Kozelek's words examine the issues of the day that he was dealing with in his mid-20s, while others find him staring at his past, one of his more resonant and successful themes. Funny, then, that the album opens with "Grace Cathedral Park," in which he states, "You know I don't spend days like this / caught up in lost times of youth that I miss." But in spite of all the talk of sickness, violence, death, and things that are important at the time but mean nothing later, he never gets so lost in his melancholy that listeners can't appreciate and identify with the subject matter. It's wistful and somber, but not depressing just to be depressing. Everybody hurts, and Kozelek is just telling it like it is.
Defining song: "Katy Song" is a fan favorite, and "Strawberry Hill" might actually be the best of the lot, but "Grace Cathedral Park" opens the album with, for lack of a better description, dreamy folk-pop containing lines that prepare listeners for the journey they're about to take. Sure, the early promise not to dwell on the past turns out to be empty, but soon after, Kozelek shows his cards: "We walked down the hill / I feel the coming on of the fading sun / and I know for sure that you'll never be the one / It's the forbidden moment that we live that fires our sad escape / and holds passion more than words can say." Adding to all that passion is the fact that it's one of the most beautiful compositions ever written by a musician, regardless of genre.