Review Summary: The fourth album from sadcore pioneers Red House Painters, is a wonderful collection of songs that represents perhaps their most upbeat record.
"Music is one of the ways by which you can know everything which is going on in the world....anything human can be felt through music, which means there is no limit to the creating that can be done. Its infinite, like God" - Nina Simone
Maybe Mark Kozelek read this when he was a kid.
If you believe that music is a vehicle for traversing the road to the understanding of the human condition, then that vehicle comes in many forms and guises. Leonard Cohen fans will tell you they listen to him not for the singing, or arrangements, or guitar playing – but for his words. Jeff Buckley fans will tell you his music was the vehicle for him to showcase his voice. Mark Kozelek fans will tell you that no one else leaves himself or herself as vulnerable on record as he does. His music is intensely personal, vulnerable, tragic, but also very human.
Released in 1995, Ocean Beach is the fourth Red House Painters album, and up to that point their most upbeat and polished. Sonically, this is not a great departure from their previous 3 albums and the standard RHP formula is once again evident. The body of his work thus far shows that he, as a person, feels a need to re-trace, detail and understand the things that have happened in the past. His fascination of loss, love and memory is still all there, but what makes Ocean Beach somewhat different from other RHP albums lies in its sonic textures. A more acoustic folk feel is coupled with Kozelek dropping some of the reverb on previous albums results in a record that, whilst introspective, has an undercurrent of hope and beauty not always so evident in his work.
‘Ocean Beach’ serves as an apt title for the album. The catchy, upbeat instrumental ‘Cabezon’ opens the album, with its jangly guitar line makes you feel like you were lying in a hammock on the lazy Sunday afternoon staring into the ocean. This is followed by the similarly beautiful and hopeful summer dress, which is perhaps one of the prettiest songs ever penned by Kozelek in which the subject ‘takes herself to the sand ‘ to ‘say a prayer and she’s kissed by ocean mist’. He lets you know right away, he’s in fine form.
The band changes gear for ‘San Geronimo’, a rocky, sleepy number that has Kozelek digging up memories of his childhood in San Francisco before retrieving back to quieter territory. Kozelek pulls out the punches on the latter half of the album with two mammoth compositions in the form of ‘Drop’ and ‘Moments’. Both feature extended jamming sessions by the band, but not before Kozelek leaves you floored with some killer song-writing.
‘Brockwell Park’ deserves special mention as the best song here. Stark, bleak and emotionally draining, it is only compounded by a first rate vocal performance. By the end, when he sings ‘if the days weren’t so precious/and no worlds where shorted wires kept us/things would be better than this’ you feel his world caving in.
But even with lyrics that bleak, Ocean Beach still feels lighter and more hopeful than either RHP I or II. That’s a compliment to Kozelek’s for the unique humanness that embodies this record. For those starting out, I would suggest Down Colorful Hill or RHP I. But as it stands, Ocean Beach is a wonderful addition to the RHP catalogue.