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The Boston Phoenix Memory Lanes

Red House Painters' "Retrospective"

By Ivan Kreilkamp

JULY 26, 1999:  The Red House Painters are blatantly pretentious, asking to be taken seriously or not at all. First of all, who's red, the painters or the house? Then there's the confusion surrounding the two homonymous albums -- one a double! -- released five months apart in 1993 on 4AD. Who had the time to figure out what that was all about? Sure, one's the "Roller Coaster" album, one's the "Bridge" album -- whatever you say, Mr. Mysterious Cult Artist. Lacking the critical support a band like this would need to get over, the Red House Painters -- who, like many 4AD artists, have always been more popular in Europe than in the US -- are little known here. Now Retrospective's one CD of best hits and one of demos, live tracks, and outtakes -- culled from the period 1992-1995, when the band recorded for 4AD -- invite a new group of listeners to get inside songwriter Mark Kozelek's sad head.

The Red House Painters released their first record, Down Colorful Hill, in 1992, when Kozelek was a kid from Ohio working as a night clerk in a San Francisco hotel. One imagines him quietly playing tapes of Mark Eitzel's American Music Club, Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Joy Division, Big Star's Third, and Neil Young ballads on a cheap tape deck as the leftovers of San Francisco nightlife pass by his desk. He collects and hands out room keys without a word, intensely lonely, musing on the transience of human connection. But Kozelek himself claims that he'd never heard of arty types like Cohen and Drake (he admits to Neil Young), that he was just a Midwestern boy grooving on Cat Stevens ballads. Maybe so -- it's quite possible that the other influences might have come to him filtered through American Music Club. Whatever the case, Kozelek's music aspires to, and sometimes achieves, the late-night-of-the-soul beauty of Cohen and Drake. Sung in a choked-up voice drenched in reverb, his lyrics sound like someone else's confession, and his best songs are vulnerable and mesmerizing.

When Kozelek gets precious or weird, he falls flat. The first disk of Retrospective does gather good stuff, though nine minutes of the suicidal "Medicine Bottle" are a bit much, and the creepy falsetto singing on the seven-minute "Evil" is unbearable (I would have voted for Kozelek's cover of Paul Simon's "I Am a Rock" instead). The second CD's odds and sods have Kozelek alone with a guitar and sounding every bit the Cat Stevens fan -- a role that suits him well. He's best singing over simple music, establishing an incantatory, intimate mood with language and delicate washes of guitar (the latter from the now-departed Gordon Mack, whose playing always provided a subtle and inventive canvas for Kozelek's voice). His lyrics, tending toward the vague and gestural, can be at their most affecting when they simply blur into non-verbal sound, as at the end of "Katy Song," when a twangy, echoing guitar rises out of the mix to accompany a mournful chorus of wordless sing-along.

The band's music evokes intense nostalgia -- nostalgia for one's own younger self. Take "New Jersey," in which Mack, bassist Jerry Vessel, and drummer Anthony Koutsos establish a simple strum pattern with a hint of Neil Young's anthemic guitar power. Kozelek sings about "an American girl, red-headed, eyes blank, living in a freckle on the face of the world." The music accumulates resonance as it repeats, the instruments buzzing with a subdued feedback. "You're not as bad as your dad, but you're as good as dead," Kozelek sings with more compassion than aggression. He stretches out "dead" into several syllables and adds, "New Jersey ain't the whole world."

Is Kozelek offering consolation? Advice for someone who feels trapped? As he approaches the chorus, he seems to be speaking in the voice of that girl, reaching out to someone who's managed to get out of New Jersey, or maybe just out of her own private New Jersey: "Don't you leave me out here too long. Will you bring me out there too?" Here and elsewhere, he seems obsessed with the distance between the small town and the big city (San Francisco, LA, London), where childhood memories of roller coasters, summer dresses, and teenage heavy-metal haircuts start to seem precious and deep in the past.

The logic of "Japanese to English" and "Mistress" (the latter represented here in two versions, one with only spare piano accompaniment) is hard to follow, but lines stand out from the simple music with the clarity of snapshots: "a kind of weight you couldn't lift even if your cheap career depended on it" and "this dictionary never has a word for the way I'm feeling/I cannot translate Japanese to English." Looking for the right word and always coming just short, Mark Kozelek writes pop songs as sad, self-involved, and compelling as our own memories.

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