Thursday, January 20, 2011

5 Years: Part 2

Red House Painters were one of the few 90s bands that garnered a lot of hype and respect throughout their very low key and prolific career who actually deserved it. In my opinion they’re the epitome of what an indie band should be – honest, intelligent and approachable at multiple levels, whose songs are actively in your head without dominating your vocals cords, and ultimately something you want to share with people whose taste in music you care about.

Down Colorful Hill

I borrowed Down Colorful Hill, their 1992 debut, from my friend Kelda around 1997 or so and L-O-V-E-D it. From there I bought everything by Red House Painters I could find, signed a petition ranting about the major label fiasco/non-release of their last album, Old Ramon, and spent a lot of time listening to, or at least attempting to listen to, these albums.


The problem with the latter was twofold – 1) None of them gripped me quite like Down Colorful Hill because 2) they’re so stinkin’ long. I say the latter not as a criticism but merely a fact. The average Red House Painters song is well over five minutes long and more than a few easily surpass the ten minute mark without even stopping for directions. The guiltiest collection of these is their second album, which is their first self-titled album, which is normally referred to as Rollercoaster. (Got that?) Having said that, the longer songs are some of their most compelling offerings, especially on the last couple albums. Yet at other times it’s easy to get lost in some of the similarish murk, with all the chiming, swirling noise and downcast vocal misery making it rather difficult to distinguish one song from another. I can distinctly remember driving somewhere and listening to their third album, which is their second self-titled, which is normally referred to as Bridge (still following?) and thinking, “Ok, I’m done with this…it’s either change the CD or run the car off the road.” (That last bit is edited for the kids out there reading.) So with that, and with the exception of Down Colorful Hill, I’ve not listened to any Red House Painters since then…and that was around 2002. (Subsequently, I’ve also ignored post-RHP band Sun Kil Moon and all related solo efforts.)


And yet in my head, in my heart, a lot of these songs have never left me. In more recent years I have seen or read or experienced something that would bring a line or a melody back to mind and then find myself humming that tune for the rest of the afternoon. However, that fact never made me want to listen to Red House Painters. So much was my dismay that as recently as a couple of months ago I considered unloading everything but Down Colorful Hill at a used CD store, freeing up the shelf space and cutting my losses.

Part of the problem was/is that these albums/songs remind(ed) me of a time when I was still actively attempting to pursue a “music career” and lamenting the fact that I could/would never write a song so beautifully believable and significant as Mistress, Summer Dress or Blindfold. That’s just part of the bitterness of this self-perceived failed artist, which is something I attempt to overcome, or at least ignore, daily.

Ocean Beach

And I feel rather guilty about this snubbing. Why? Well, from a fiscal standpoint I’d dropped quite a bit of coin on these guys back when I didn’t always have the funds to legitimately do so. But, more importantly, from an I should be listening to this because it’s good standpoint, I kick myself for not taking/making the time to give these albums the attention they deserve. And yet now in my 30s, with a busy job, a growing family and much on the schedule at all times, it’s hard to find ample space for 14 songs and 76 minutes worth of music (Rollercoaster, I’m talking to you). So as part of my “five years” endeavor I was eager to make this stack of albums a priority in the listening cycle.

Songs for a Blue Guitar

In short, I’ve found the experience highly rewarding as a nostalgic romp, but also as one of fresh wonder and discovery. This essentially proves the timeless ambition and scope of Red House Painters’ leader Mark Kozelek, the heart, voice and vision of the band. Kozelek is an undisputed master at weaving tales of loss, regret and longing (all the things we love about a good mope), and encasing these vignettes in a bittersweet, almost menacing shell that makes them painfully pleasant and even dangerous listening. This is bare bones, open soul and confessional rock n roll, speaking to and for the folks out there whose outlook monitor is set to bleak. If you’ve got the time, repeat spins will reveal layer upon layer of moments that absolutely define a musically well-written song and a lyrically well-broken heart. I’ll continue to argue that the best, most concise collection is Down Colorful Hill, so delicate in its shy fury that it’s hard to surpass. But every album has at least one number that’s worth the price of admission, with the remainder an exceptional set that’s, usually, well worth the wading, with some of the best bits sneaking up and revealing themselves when you’d least expect them.


· Down Colorful Hill – Really all of them, but Japanese to English has that extra push.

· Red House Painters (Rollercoaster) – Katy Song will make you weep. I’m serious.

· Red House Painters (Bridge) – Uncle Joe combines a plaintive lyric/melody with some highly expressive playing and rips your heart out in the process.

· Ocean Beach – San Geronimo reminds me that these guys could really rock it when they wanted to, yet retain a signature, sentimental grace throughout.

· Songs for a Blue Guitar – Have You Forgotten goes straight to the heart of the matter, with no ambiguity or guessing, just the truth.

· Old Ramon – Between Days deserves a second listen. With a steady rock chug, some fantastic guitar play and a persistently cryptic lyric, it’s well worth the 17 minutes.

Old Ramon

Re-listening to these albums I find I have very distinct memories of my pre-marriage duplex (the walls, the floors, the layout and decorations), folks I knew (or thought I knew), things I did (and didn’t), feelings I had (and often still do), etc. Also, I’m sorta shocked at how well I remember these songs, which means they made more of an impact than I’d initially given them credit. What this means now and today is that I plan on keeping these albums in a regular rotation as much as possible, creating new memories for the next decade.


Shock Me

On a somewhat side note, Kozelek is also known for being a pretty avid fan of classic rock, covering everything from Simon and Garfunkel to AC/DC to the Star Spangled Banner on his various releases. Shock Me, a classic era Kiss track, has always been a favorite.

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