Review Summary: In a way that only he can, Mark Kozelek transforms Modest Mouse songs into beautiful acoustic folk ballads. With Tiny Cities, Kozelek displays a truly rare ability ability to not only transform songs stylistically, but to take the work of another artist a
Whether it be under the name of Red House Painters
, Sun Kil Moon
or simply his own name, Mark Kozelek
has always been fond of covers. With Red House Painters, Kozelek was prone to include various covers on his records (perhaps most notable was his cover of The Cars' "All Mixed Up" on Songs For a Blue Guitar) while on his own, he released What's Next to the Moon, an album consisting entirely of Bon Scott era AC/DC covers.
Which brings us to Tiny Cities, Kozelek's second album with Sun Kil Moon. Perhaps unlike anything he has previously done, Tiny Cities is an album of wildly transformed Modest Mouse covers
. While Modest Mouse songs, in their original form, are often somewhat abrasive and noisy, Kozelek transforms them into acoustic folk ballads, typical of his style. The songs of Tiny Cities often feature little more than a lone acoustic guitar and Kozelek's voice, but there are tracks ("Neverending Math Equation", for example) that also showcase Sun Kil Moon in full band mode. Stylistically, Tiny Cities is some of the more minimalistic material that Kozelek has produced. In terms of tone, textures and production, it sounds more like Sun Kil Moon than any of Kozelek's other projects, but is on the softer side of his work; like "Glenn Tipton" or "Gentle Moon" from the group's debut. Drums are rare and electric guitars are more rare. The sparse arrangements feature Kozelek's voice high in the mix, which perfectly captures the imperfections of his voice (which, in turn, are what makes is so good). That's not to say it's raw or, on the other hand, especially polished. Perhaps the most apt word to describe the sound of Tiny Cities is 'lush', especially in the context of the more bare songs and the fingerpicked 12-string guitars that are often the sole backing for Kozelek's voice.
At this point, it's a given that Kozelek's treatment of covers is going to be impressive. What's most impressive about Tiny Cities, however, is the way that Kozelek has chosen a set of Modest Mouse songs that may seem arbitrary at first, but more thoughtful on subsequent examinations. Running through the entire album are the themes of travel, space, age and distance, which were strong themes on Ghosts of the Great Highway. A quick glance over the song titles reveals that these themes are present in just about every track; "Exit Does Not Exist", "Space Travel is Boring", "Trucker's Atlas", and so on. And so even more impressive than Kozelek's ability to reinterpret the original material to suit his style and artistic intent is his ability to take the material of other artists and to weave a concept throughout an album that he seems to be extremely concerned with. The result is an album of songs that feel like if they weren't originally written by Kozelek, then they should have been. For anyone unfamiliar with Modest Mouse, Tiny Cities may simply seem like an original piece of work from Sun Kil Moon. Even someone well acquainted with the work of Modest Mouse may think, for a while, that these are actually Sun Kil Moon songs. And in a way, they are Sun Kil Moon songs. When listening to Tiny Cities, the fact that these are someone else's songs can be a mere afterthought for the listener.
While Tiny Cities is a spectacularly beautiful album, it does have some minor shortcomings. Firstly, its 11 songs only clock in at half an hour, which is a little disappointing; an extra 10 minutes would make quite a difference. That said, the album does have a lot of replay value and playing it on repeat a couple of times is a nice experience. Secondly, the album is a little uneven in places. A couple of songs ("Dramamine" and "Convenient Parking"), while nice, don't contribute as well to the album as the rest of their counterparts.
While the songs of Tiny Cities may have been written by Modest Mouse, they become undeniably Kozelek's; stylistically, emotionally and thematically. A truly beautiful record, Tiny Cities creates a world where distance, loneliness and imperfection are met with comfort and understanding. While it may not be a typical tribute, Kozelek has taken the art of Modest Mouse and reinterpreted it to be deeply and utterly personal. And in the end, what greater tribute to someone else's art is there?
Interesting reinterpretations of Modest Mouse tunes
Exit Does Not Exist
Space Travel is Boring
Four Fingered Fisherman
Ocean Breathes Salty
Final Rating: 4/5