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Red House Painters | Old Ramon (Sub Pop)
"I can't be with her enough / But I'll never give her up." You have to admire Mark Kozelek's decision to open an album that breaks a four year (albeit enforced) silence with a straight-faced, irony-free ode to his cat. Wop-a-din-din is unashamedly sentimental ("when we lock eyes there's so much love I wanna cry"), playfully intimate ("Somehow when we sleep / She'll end up at my feet / If I roll and kick around / I might knock her to the ground / But she'll come back anyhow") and further cements Kozelek's reputation as a law unto himself. Musically the song is built around a delightful, cyclical guitar figure that slowly allows other instruments into the mix never resorting to full-on rock bombast. Another of Kozelek's objects of desire is the subject of Byrd Joel. "My baby sleeps unmoved / Warm and naked / Pale and pretty," it begins before acoustics are joined by layered electrics and the mood turns to one of resignation ("Don't go away / Come back again / I feel so lost") before their fate is sealed by "this lonely white grip of winter." The reflective Void begins with the mournful, lonesome imagery of Kozelek alone with his guitar ?? "Sometimes I pick it up and play / Loosen and stretch its ancient strings / Until it sounds the way I feel" ?? and recaptures the glorious, sweeping heights of enduring Red House Painters classics Katy Song, Japanese to English et al; its refrain "Red light get me home" sung with longing over a sinewy e-bowed guitar. The atypically upbeat Between Days follows, aesthetically tied to Songs For A Blue Guitar's similarly sprawling Make Like Paper and, perhaps, equally in need of a 'radio edit' to prevent it becoming the target for the 'skip' button on occasion. On Cruiser, what some might call the album's 'centrepiece,' Kozelek takes us on a ride through the contrasting "Purple nights and yellow days / Neon signs and silver lakes" of Los Angeles, all the while "Playing Hanoi Rocks and Social D." It's a classic Red House Painters moment, the wild 'rock-star' visuals set against a gentle breeze of a melody, Kozelek's voice draped lazily across the canvas. The short, jazz guitar break is another sublime touch, before the realisation dawns that his romance with his 'erotic black haired toy' is to be curtailed. "The ocean can't be mine / Your perfection can't be mine" he admits before taking flight until "LA sparkles on the ground / LA glitters on the ground..." closing appropriately with a brief blues outro. Insert your chosen superlative here. Michigan follows with an almost jaunty country charm (replete with pedal-steel), and restores a little equilibrium, a mild respite before the epic River echoes the themes of Byrd Joel, a palpable sense of pain prevalent in the chaotic swirl of guitars behind the trademark extended farewell. Despite its epic scale, River doesn't quite capture the grandeur of Void or Cruiser, instead relying on the apparent fail-safe RHP formula to see it through its eleven-minute duration. The familiar Smokey (previously available in demo form on the Shanti Project collection) begins the slow wind-down of Old Ramon. Opening with the memorable couplet "I'm broken down / You cave my karma in," this is a late night/early morning reflection on another absent partner. One never knows whether the subject of his musings is the same person or one of a succession of failed unions. Small, intimate details probably offer clues to their inspiration (in this case "I keep your glass hand by the bed we slept"). The closing pairing of Golden and Kavita possess a similar charm and economy to Kozelek's recent solo outings. The former is an homage to John Denver, to whom Kozelek paid tribute with three covers on the Badman Recordings 'tribute' album, Take Me Home (which he also compiled). With its low-key backing it bears all the hallmarks of a first-take and is an honest tribute, less poetic than expected ("Sister woke me up / When you fell out of the sky...You're alive and good Saint John / As the AM waves live on") but tinged with genuine sadness - "You're the cornerstone of my memories as a kid...and it's a sadder place when that crackling vinyl spins." The brushed drums and tremolo guitar of Kavita bring things to a delicate close, a time to reflect on the themes of the record. Strange that the scale and breadth of the record appears so wide yet Kozelek's primary subject is a desire for the physical closeness of one love or another ?? so many references are made to sleep, his bed or the eyes of objects of his affection ?? female, or feline.

Matt Dornan
CWAS #8 - Summer 2001