Back in the early-’90s, San Franciscans the Red House Painters were known as the saddest band in the world. Their songs, beautiful folk-rock sulks that lasted for hours, moved so desperately slowly they made dirges sound upbeat, while Mark Kozelek’s lyrics revealed unfathomable miseries.
Then something strange happened – Kozelek cheered up, sort of. He started covering air-punching rock anthems, culminating in a recent solo album of AC/DC songs, writing love songs and even acting (as the bass player in [I]Almost Famous[/I]). ‘Old Ramon’ dates from 1998, but has been lost in a tortuous netherworld of record company politicking ever since, and further rebukes the old Red House Painters stereotype.
In fact, the songs are even longer now, and often just as slow. But while Kozelek’s voice still has a lugubrious, haunted quality that’ll reassure the obsessives, the delicate poise of ‘Old Ramon’ is rooted in more balanced emotions. The stand-out ‘Cruiser’ is typical, a tale of a brief affair in LA that Kozelek would once have turned into a black grind of self-loathing. Here, however, it’s rueful and pretty, with the singer seduced by the city’s familiar charms as much as by the girl.
They’re the sentiments and sounds of West Coast rock becalmed and quietened, stripped of fretwanking excess, and invested with a warmth that transcends cliché. A fortunate, if belated release, and a tragedy averted.