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03.05.15 Red House Painters / Sun Kil Moon ranke

Red House Painters / Sun Kil Moon ranked

Who is the world's saddest living songwriter? I'm not sure this is a question that can be answered, but Mark Kozelek makes as good of claim on the title as anyone. After seeing him perform a solo show several months ago, I was enthralled by his persona: Everything I had heard about his gloomy, cantankerous stage presence was true. He heaved bitter jokes at the audience and at himself. He sadly wandered around aimlessly on stage, mumbling incoherently between songs. Reparable equipment malfunctions sent him stumbling through a panic that seemed potent enough to abruptly end the show less than 30 mins in. And then he bitched about The War on Drugs for close to ten minutes, prior to playing a ~10 minute song called "War on Drugs: Suck my Cock." During his encore he read the audience texts from his flip phone for no apparent reason, and then told us that he doesn't have a driver's license. And then he even insulted the city he was playing in. Were he not utterly hilarious while doing all of this, I would have walked out- but it was probably the most I have laughed in a single night of my adult life. And, I would not have enjoyed the show so deeply were I not enthralled with his songwriting prowess, and the way it teemed, rollercoaster-like, with his stage identity. Between these instances of what could be construed as odd, off putting behavior, Koz utilized his beautiful, moving voice and tasteful, gentle guitar to conjure up some of the purest, most moving performances I have ever heard in person. Known for displaying a certain bareness in his songwriting, Kozelek reaches a profound point where he leaves himself completely vulnerable, like no other songwriter does. He lets you into his sadness.. He sacrifices himself for his art, and the cranky, "get off my lawn" demeanor he is known for is likely just a product of this sacrifice. Kozelek deserves to be listened to by anyone with even a vague interest, and his show inspired me to rank his RHP / SKM albums.
1Red House Painters
Red House Painters II

I know that by putting this album as last on my list that I am contradicting what I myself am about to say, but Red House Painters II, colloquially known as "Bridge," is a horribly under looked album. A big reason for this is how it was released in the shadow of its towering sister album, "Rollercoaster." Regardless, Bridge is likely the closest the Painters got to sounding like the slowcore genre tag that the media applied to them. Most of the album moves like molasses as Koz's tortured voice reveals tortured melody after tortured melody. The album can be hard to sit through, but it has some real gems and feels like a necessity for understanding the true, gritty identity of early RHP. Check out the great, relatively upbeat cover of I Am a Rock, opener Evil, the better version of New Jersey, as well as the closer, the band's haunting cover of The Star Spangled Banner.
2Sun Kil Moon
Admiral Fell Promises

Although Mark Kozelek is generally understood to be the central, if not sole, figure of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon, Admiral Fell Promises feels like it should just come outright and reveal itself as a true solo effort. The album feels about as bare bones as it gets- just a collection of songs performed by nothing more than Kozelek and his nylon string guitar. You can practically imagine him sitting by himself in some dusty little high-floored room, playing these songs in the waning light of the evening, pausing between them to mournfully look out over some tired city streets feeling a strange cocktail of love, rumination, and melancholic scorn. The approach has a lot to be said for it, to be sure, but it isn't executed to perfection and, with the longer track times, tends to wear itself thin before it winds down. That being said, "Alesund" is one of the best songs he's ever recorded, while Half Moon Bay, Third and Seneca, and Bay of Skulls aren't too shabby, either.
3Sun Kil Moon
Among the Leaves

As perfectly stated in the featured review for this record, this is Kozelek's don't give a fuck album. The grumpy old man stage persona really started to bleed through into his recorded music here, with lyrics about his bad back, a lack of cute girls at his concerts, and lame opening acts all manifesting themselves, and that's just one song! In truth, this album is where Mark started crafting some of the ideas, themes, and concepts that flourished on 2014's Benji- those being the emotion, connection, and depth found in very mundane, every day occurrences. With an un-honed concept and a lot of tracks with little artistic filter, the quality can be a bit scatter shot here. For every couple of good tracks, there is one that feels forgettable or unnecessary, but it makes for an interesting listen as Mark finds a new, sometimes very funny, approach to baring his soul. Personal favorites include Sunshine in Chicago, The Winery, Elaine, Among the Leaves, King Fish, and Lonely Mountain.
4Red House Painters
Old Ramon

Known more for the background story surrounding its release than the actual music, Old Ramon was the last Mark album I ventured into, and upon doing so I immediately wondered how an album so good could have possibly been allowed to sit gathering dust for two years of record-lable incompetence. While I do believe that most of these songs sound better in their stripped-down forms on Mark's many live albums, the recorded version makes for an incredibly relaxed and surprisingly not-depressing listen- it feels more like a record of calm acceptance than anything. You can certainly tell it was recorded in close proximity to Songs for a Blue Guitar, too- songs like "Void" and "Between Days" are real jammers, and "Cruiser"... well, it cruises. Standout track, however, is the twisted "River". The lyric about "her yellow eyes" has never been far from my mind since first hearing it...
5Red House Painters
Songs for a Blue Guitar

Backed by John Hiatt's band, Songs for a Blue Guitar feels like it was Mark's aim-for-the-stars attempt at really, truly breaking into the mainstream- of course, he does this on his own terms. The album's production feels very warm, and the melodies are very immediate and likable. Its the kind of album that seems like it should have been a big hit, but just wasn't meant to be, despite the cover of "All Mixed Up" making it into a GAP commercial. Slowcore all but abandoned, the album is carried by long, roaring guitar jams and gentle alternative folk, as well as some interesting covers. "Trailways" transgresses into some astoundingly beautiful sonic territory, and Priest Alley Song takes a surprising and energetic turn midway when some great drums kick in. The title track also deserves a mention. And while this is a well written and thoroughly enjoyable album, it isn't as emotionally satisfying and involving as the rest of Mark's work, which keeps it from breaking into his upper echelons
6Red House Painters
Ocean Beach

Often cited as Red House Painter's "happy" album, Ocean Beach sees the band step out from the comfort zone that was beginning to form with their first three releases. From the bouncy, lighthearted "Over My Head" and "Cabezon" to the incredibly catchy and uplifting "San Geronimo", the 'slowcore' remainders of the band's past feel scarce even though there's still plenty of down-tempo sadness going on here. The squalor of noise ending "Moments" teamed with the devastatingly brutal poignancy of "Drop" ensure that this album is no lightweight. Shorter tracks like "Summer Dress" and "Red Carpet" are bigger than their runtimes and solidify album flow as one of Ocean Beach's best qualities. This marks the point in the list where the albums start transitioning from "really good" to "fucking great."
7Red House Painters
Down Colorful Hill

Perhaps the haunting album cover captures the sound of Mark's debut more adequately than any written description could. Forget about beds being warm and inviting places for rest and relaxation- this bed is a dark, dreary metaphysical hovel for festering depression. And really, has anyone ever heard a song that is as unflinchingly depressing as "Medicine Bottle"? Songs of that depth and caliber do a lot to assert Mark's astonishing relevance as an emerging songwriter, as Koz spends most of the album cementing desperate feelings of anguish with his youthful voice and burgeoning lyrical talent. Intense, but ever overwrought, the album shines with songs like the instrumentally captivating "Japanese to English" and the sad, loving ode to a forgotten friend, "Michael." But if you haven't turned 24 yet, I recommend experiencing a quality music/life sync up by listening to the opener on your 24th b-day- unless, that is, of course, you feel like being hopeful and not depressed on your b-day.
8Sun Kil Moon
Ghosts of the Great Highway

I thought of simly describing this one with "Motherfucking Duk Koo Kim", but that would do injustice to the other great songs on this reord. A perfect starter album, the first of Mark's under the Sun Kil Moon moniker was a smash hit in critical indie circles, and for very good reason. Claiming that the Red House Painters name was retired so "people would be interested in the band," it's hard to imagine that this record wouldn't have sparked significant interest based on the quality of the music alone. Ghosts successfully blends a number of styles, though this was notably the folkiest album Mark had released at its point in time. What really stands out, however, are the crazy horse jams like "Salvador Sanchez", the undeniably catchy and beautiful "Carry Me Ohio", and, of course, the stunningly brilliant epic, "Duk Koo Kim." Truly an album that should have a little something for everyone.
9Sun Kil Moon

Who would have thought that aiming as broadly as possibly would allow for the most shockingly intimate lyrical connections of Mark's career? If you found Koz's lyrics about going to Panera Bread with his dad totally laughable, or his detailing of adolescent sexual experiences in "Dogs" embarrassing for him, then I'm going to go ahead and say you didn't get Benji. Mark asks you to be as honest with yourself as he is, brings you close with simple, matter-of-fact ramblings about every day occurrences, and then knocks you out with the emotional weight carried by himself and the character's found throughout the album, often in the form of our all-too human struggle with death. Koz's perfection of the approach hinted at with the previous album saw Benji getting the critical appreciation and respect he's always deserved, and if you haven't heard it yet, listen to it. All of it.
10Red House Painters
Red House Painters I

I would wager that a lot of people probably saw this one as the front runner to take the top spot- and not without good reason. The first self titled RHP album, colloquially referred to as "Rollercoaster", is chock full of brilliant songs, from the dreamy, shoegze-y "Mistress" to the remarkably gorgeous and sad "Katy Song." Rollercoaster is towering and huge, and at times almost unbearably dense. However, somewhat ironically, it is also one of Mark's most charming releases, and nothing can really invoke the mood that is so effortlessly present here. It's one of those albums that just feels totally vital and essential- in a word, classic. Only a few of the longer tracks feeling too self-indulgent stop this from being my personal favorite.
11Sun Kil Moon

I notice a lot of ironies in Mark Kozelek's music, as you may have picked up on throughout this list. Perhaps the most obvious of these is how an album titled "April" sounds the absolute best in the fall. With its rustic elegance and the sort of melancholy best served by crisp fall air, the turning colors of tree leaves, and the smell of evening fireplaces, there's no question that April is my favorite album for my favorite season. But what makes it truly worthy of standing atop this list as Kozelek's best work is its quality of synthesis and cohesion. Here, like no where else, Kozelek pairs his best melodies and lyrics with his most lush, sprawling soundscapes. The shifting tones and melodies of tracks like "Lost Verses" and "Tonight in Bilbao" never, ever get old. Space requirements stop me from pouring hyperbolic praise on every song here, so I guess I'm just going to listen to it instead... You should too.
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