Red House Painters

Imagine what it was like for 4AD chief Ivo Watts-Russell the first time he listened to the Red House Painters' demo tapes. Demos, by nature, are rudimentary things, often suggesting promise but rarely realising it. Most demos are excruciatingly bad - the kind of unlistenable things you play for bemused friends so they, too, can wonder why the potential musician ever bothered in the first place. Red House Painters were luckier. The elusive chemistry was there from the first note. Singer Mark Kozelek wrote songs that defied conventional structure. His lyrics were poetic and plainspoken. He wrote about what he knew. The band played along. Drummer Anthony Koutsos ignored the standard time-keeper temptation to speed things up. He understood the value of playing against such instincts. Bassist Jerry Vessel locked into place, sustaining notes until the setting was nearly ambient. Guitarist Gorden Mack added subtle flourishes, tonal colorings that aided the songs‚ sombre hues. Anyone who persevered, who accepted the fact that these songs took time, was amply rewarded. Ivo sensed this and after minimal remixing 4AD released six songs as Down Colorful Hill, the first Red House Painters album in August 1992. It remains one of the label's strongest releases.

Mark Kozelek was a different person back then. In his early twenties, he saw the world in tragic, even melodramatic, terms. He and a girlfriend parted ways and the nine minutes and fifty one seconds of "Medicine Bottle" followed. The obsessive-compulsive need to work through the details, to relive the experience, to make it seem less dead, made the song an epic. There was no standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure that could hold such sentiments. Instead, Kozelek unfolded the songs at their own pace. There's no denying the power of such emotional catharsis. All Red House Painters songs have the urgency of someone who believes.

But that isn't all there is. Yes, Kozelek wrote about his old teenage friend's slip into delinquency ("Michael") and evidence of his own mortality ("24") because those were the things he was drawn towards as a young man. Emotionally, they resonated within him. He'd been working as a night clerk in a San Francisco hotel, two thousand plus miles away from his family back in Massillon, Ohio, not knowing whether he'd ever achieve anything with his music, mostly wondering the same existential questions most young people ask themselves about their position in the world.

Then with the 4AD contract signed and the album released, the band began receiving positive notices in the British music papers. Legitimate comparisons to Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison were made. The band scratched their collective head. Who? Ironically, Kozelek had grown up in America's heartland on mostly classic rock. He liked Cat Stevens' acoustic lullabies and Neil Young's mix of ballads and rockers. These cult acts were beyond his scope.

Interviews were uncomfortable. Journalists probed like psychoanalysts. Kozelek answered honestly. He didn't drive. He'd been sober since his mid-teens. He had problems with intimacy, but craved female companionship. He wrote songs. He didn't feel comfortable on stage. He didn't like doing interviews. The few shows the band did pull off were nerve-wracking. Kozelek would keep his eyes closed and steady himself through the show.

Happily, the band retreated into the studio to record. With 4AD footing the bill, they could finally lay down the backlog of songs Kozelek had stored up. The results were so prodigious they had to be released as two separate albums. Identified by their covers as the 'Rollercoaster'‚ and the 'Bridge'‚ albums, they were both self-titled.

'Rollercoaster'‚ was released first in early 1993. "Strawberry Hill" and "Mother" were compositional monsters that spoke, respectively, of Kozelek's feelings about his public image, and the yearning for the safe, simple days he experienced as a child. "Katy Song" was a landmark. Written about the ongoing struggles of a major relationship in his life, the song is among Kozelek's most sublime. The almost martial rhythm melds into a slow gait as the guitars swirl and build. Like most Kozelek melodies, the tune is simple, with the feeling that each note has been specifically arranged for maximum impact. The song dissolves into a wordless "Hey Jude" singalong, nearly mirthful considering what came before.

The 'Bridge' album arrived later that same year. Its shorter length, inclusion of two covers, (Paul Simon's "I Am A Rock" and the "Star Spangled Banner" rendered with a completely reworked melody), plus an alternate take of "New Jersey", made it seem a mop-up of the sessions. But the steady power of "Evil", a song that builds in fury as its melody is mutated with eerie falsetto vocal harmonies, is first-rate. "Blindfold", meanwhile, takes a girlfriend's perspective in being left for someone new.

The release of so much material so quickly helped keep Kozelek focused. The band had taken to playing an unusual adaptation of the Kiss tune "Shock Me", which was originally sung by the bubblegum rockers' livewire guitarist Ace Frehley. Initially, Red House Painters audiences missed the joke (or at least didn't know the song). But once it was released as the title track of an EP and all could read in the credits where it came from, the Kiss cover exposed Kozelek's classic seventies rock roots beyond doubt. More importantly, the Shock Me EP featured "Sundays and Holidays" and "Three-Legged Cat", quiet acoustic numbers that marked a significant shift in the band's sound. The songs were closer to John Denver folk than the abstract construction of much of the band's repertoire. Any accusations of "indie-rock" stopped here.

For 1995's Ocean Beach, Kozelek removed much of the reverb from his voice. It signified a new confidence. Once visibly nervous and shaking behind the microphone, he'd become more comfortable on stage. Fans expecting to see an introvert reluctantly exposing his delicate inner soul were greeted by a casual friend who was suddenly telling jokes when not manhandling his back catalogue. At a solo acoustic show at a club in New York promoting, Kozelek played for over two hours, leading an a capella rendition of "Mistress" after an impromptu piano lesson with a startled audience member didn't quite reach the level of performance Kozelek was looking for. The club eventually turned off the PA as he went into overtime. Nonplused, he sang without electricity, directly to the attention of the still-packed house.

Ocean Beach found Kozelek continuing to evolve as a writer. He didn't need a personal crisis to spur the creative juices. "Summer Dress" was a joyful acoustic number. "San Geronimo" matched the majesty of vinyl records with the beautiful California landscape surrounding him. "Shadows" could have been a great Joni Mitchell song. "Drop" was prime Red House Painters, exploding with hurt emotions and a cataclysmic wallop.

Gorden Mack left Red House Painters soon after the album's completion, unintentionally capping the band's 4AD period. His departure left room for Kozelek to experiment with the '70s guitar leads he heard in his head. This new situation would affect the recording and overall sound of Songs for a Blue Guitar. The album, a brilliant account of Mark's continuing evolution complete with several unusual covers and extended guitar jams, was not a comfortable fit for the label. It was mutually agreed that both parties would be best served working separately. Songs For A Blue Guitar was released by Island Records imprint Supreme, with Phil Carey eventually replacing Mack on guitar.

Red House Painters' final 4AD release was the double-disc Retrospective compilation in 1999. The band's swansong, Old Ramon, belatedly emerged on Sub Pop in 2001. By this time, Kozelek's profile had been raised by a starring role in Cameron Crowe's hit movie Almost Famous, not to mention an idiosyncratic solo career which has been dominated by radical reworkings of AC/DC classics. In November 2005, Mark will be in London to perform acoustic renditions of Red House Painters songs as part of 4AD's 25th anniversary celebration 1980 Forward.

- Rob O'Connor
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