Melancholy and Rumination: Idaho’s Levitate

While deep in the throes of the recent slowcore feature, I found myself coming back to one particular album that did not make the list. That album was Idaho’s Levitate, released in 2001. I don’t think I could live with myself as a critic and music obsessee without first paying recognition to this strong album and excellent band. If I was given another crack at the slowcore list, I would have probably found a way to include it (but that would mean bumping another album out, and honestly, which one? Difficult decisions). So, I’ve included it here as a separate post with it’s own review as a way to round out and close up the feature – looking ahead, at least the next three week’s worth of content will revolve more around ambient and experimental work.

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Idaho – Levitate
(Idaho Music, 2001)

Idaho were a California band founded by Jeff Martin and John K. Berry. Berry left the band shortly after and Martin continued the work of Idaho autonomously. That autonomy was taken to new heights on Levitate, where Martin not only wrote all the songs, but produced the album, and played every instrument on it as well. It’s clear that Martin has skills in all these areas as this thing is immaculately produced, and has some of the most heart felt piano playing I have heard.

Levitate was the follow-up LP to Heart of Palm, an album that – along with Three Sheets to the Wind – shares the distinction of being the band’s most highly regarded work. While Heart of Palm saw Idaho’s sound at it’s most developed, Levitate is far more sparse. Martin still manages to wail, like on the tracks “Come Back Home” and the cathartic “20 Years,” but these songs feel more like he’s spitting in the wind. In the bigger picture, Levitate tips toward melancholy and rumination rather than boldness.

Nothing puts this more into perspective than the beautifully pensive title track. The song “Levitate” is broken up into two parts, and we are given the second before the first – an always welcomed ‘fuck you’ to the status quo. Put 2 before 1? Sure, why not? The parts share the same lilting piano phrase but are rather different, with part one being a far more realized song than pt.2. With palpable emotion, Martin’s lyrics teeter on nihilism, but are not without a glint of hope: “Everything you do / what does it add up to / move yourself to be / where you’re going to be.” One can only assume that Martin sings from experience, and that the sliver of hope embedded in that last line is a token to the listener from a man who really knows it to be true.

Slowcore: 10 Indispensable Albums (Part 2 of 2)

Welcome to part 2 of 2 of The Alcohol Seed’s ten album slowcore primer.
In case you missed it, here’s part 1.

Low – I Could Live in Hope
(Vernon Yard Recordings, 1994)

low_liveinhopeIf Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker were anything but lifer musicians, Low’s stardom may not have progressed past the status of the American slowcore poster child. At this point, however, after a dozen LPs, they have earned a well deserved global following. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the band perform three times in Vancouver over the span of a decade, and at the last show they opened with the song “Words,” a classic from I Could Live in Hope, before jumping into a set of newer material. The song brought about cheers from longtime fans who seemed in great abundance in the audience. It’s Incredible when a band can open a set with a song from twenty years ago and it not come across as outdated or disjointed from the rest of the set.

Consistency is an easy word to throw around when talking about Low. They are known for having a specific sound and only diverging from it to either slightly amp up their production (The Great Destroyer), or go a bit more experimental (Guns and Drums). The root of their sound was dug in deep on I Could Live in Hope, an album whose slow unfolding of dark imagery perfectly suited the band’s basic setup – guitar (Sparhawk), drums (Parker) and bass (John Nichols, who left the band shortly after). Many of the album’s songs seem built around a formula that allows for the guitar to cut through the mix like a knife, like on “Drag,” whose primary image sees Sparhawk at a point of giving up: “I’m sorry but I can’t hold on / It works much better if I let it drag me around.” It’s a testament to the album as a whole, a plea for the listener to not attempt to resist the gravity of this music. Hell, it’s a testament to the band as a whole, because slowcore would be nothing without Low, and I Could Live in Hope is where it all started. A quintessential release.

The American Analog Set –
The Golden Band
(Emperor Jones, 1999)

an_am_set_goldenbandThe American Analog Set (AmAnSet) might be one of the least offensive bands in history. They’re music never gets all that raw or noisy, nor does it ever get that loud or toss you much you wouldn’t expect. Andrew Kenny’s vocal delivery is so delicate it almost sounds prepubescent; meanwhile the rest of the band steadily churn out a sound somewhere between krautrock and smooth jazz. If Elliot Smith ever sang along to Kraftwerk songs it might have sounded something like AmAnSet. They were yet another band born of the vital Austin scene happening in and around the mid 90s, and though their whole catalog is worth hearing, the three or so years spanning The Golden Band to Know By Heart marked a highpoint in their history.

Ranking all six AmAnSet albums from best to worst would be very challenging. The first four are excellent and the last two are very good. The Golden Band happens to be a personal favourite, with the four part “New Drifters” that explores some of the band’s most varied and interesting instrumentals to date – the repeated guitar slide on “ii” is especially good. “The Wait” is about as nostalgic as it gets with the line: “through the nineties / we just got by,” which later became the title to a compilation of singles and unreleased material. But it’s the song “It’s All About Us” that really shines through with its brilliant mix of loud / quiet vitality. In its final minutes the piece develops a staggering post-kraut dynamism with the familiar guitar, organ, bass and percussive elements at their most interdependent.

Movietone – Day and Night
(Domino, 1997)

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Before hearing even a second of Movietone’s music, I had read in a Dusted review that the band recorded at least part of an album on a beach. Curious, my digging led to the discovery that not only was some of the album The Sand and the Stars recorded in an ocean bay at night, but those sessions “involved the band carrying a double bass down a cliff.” None of this means their music was going to be any good, but I was nonetheless excited to check it out. Meanwhile, I had developed a level of respect for the Bristol band’s spirit for experimentation. Dating back to their second album, Day and Night, it’s apparent that that spirit was alive and well years before the release of The Sand and the Stars.

Day and Night is a peculiar album, thriving in but never exclusively tethered to a kind of drowsy psych-folk. “Night of the Acacias” could have easily worked as part of the Fear and Loathing soundtrack, which is to say it sounds more drug-induced than the rest of the album. Perhaps Rachel Coe’s stint in Flying Saucer Attack helped steer Movietone’s sound into more psychedelic realms, although any online mention of the band seems to also mention Flying Saucer Attack more as a convenient name drop than a worthwhile comparison. Sure, Movietone have taken cues from FSA, and I would say bands like Bowery Electric and Labradford as well, but they never existed in anyone’s shadow. Day and Night‘s energy and song structure does wane slightly in the second half, but the cohesion of songs like “Sun Drawing” and “Useless Landscape” solidify Movietone’s importance in the winding narrative of slow music.

Seam – Are You Driving Me Crazy? 
(City Slang / Touch and Go, 1995)

seam_drivingmecrazySeam formed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1990. The band saw many line-up changes over the years, with Sooyoung Park (of Bitch Magnet fame) as its only core member. It’s evident that Park had a strong hold on the direction of Seam throughout the band’s existence, as ’95’s Are You Driving Me Crazy? was so consistent with the sound of ’93’s The Problem With Me, despite every member other than Park being replaced. Seam’s sound was unique to what was typically considered slowcore, ironically because their sound was so inextricably tied to the 90s than it was to any particular genre.

It’s easy to hear how Seam would appeal to post-hardcore fans, although a song like the moody “Rainy Season” might leave one or two scratching their heads wondering where the energy went. Seam wore a rock banner as a kind of facade, as Park seemed intent on keeping a thread of mellowness alive in his music. Are You Driving Me Crazy? is chalk full of songs that reach the brink of rocking out but retreat to quieter places instead. It’s this restraint that has often struck me as one of Seam’s best qualities, not to mention they also wrote some damn good hooks. In considering it’s place among the list, Are You Driving Me Crazy? helps to round out the pack with the necessary structure and energy to balance things out.

Tram – Heavy Black Frame
(Jetset / Piao!, 1999)

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I challenge anyone to come up with a better soundtrack to the overcast skies and concrete cityscapes that are so stereotypically depicted of London, England, then Tram’s Heavy Black Frame. And remember, we’re talking about shades of grey, not immutable depths of black. Tram were never so slow, or so depressing as to ever alienate themselves from their place of origin, and their progression toward a more varied, accessible sound over three albums didn’t hurt this fact either. Heavy Black Frame, the band’s debut, was their most soporific, which is probably why it makes for such a good “make-out” album, according to one pitchfork critic – whose review of the album is a strong contender for the website’s absolute worst (that hasn’t already been deleted).

Thanks to its long list of collaborators that brought to the album an array of strings, horns, and keys, Heavy Black Frame is chalk full of lush arrangements that so effortlessly compliment Paul Anderson’s vocals. Certainly, the band didn’t fall victim to the choppy production that seemed to plague the early releases of oh so many smalltime acts trying to play slowly. The result is an album with an unbroken flow from start to finish, probably diminishing its initial appeal for listeners wanting more to immediately grasp onto, but rewarding for those seeking a lasting relationship that starts with subsequent spins.

Slowcore: 10 Indispensable Albums (Part 1 of 2)

I don’t love the term slowcore. I do, however, stand behind what I believe the term represents. Humans need to compartmentalize and categorize to make sense of the whole of life, and music does not fall outside of that. And although it’s easy to scoff at the fan and critic mentality to stick ‘core’ on the end and call it a day, I prefer to hold out a little hope in what I see as a byproduct of rational human behaviour. So what does slowcore represent other than a bunch of bands that play slowly? Slowness is part of it, as all the bands I’ve chosen to list below could be lumped into a group representative of music made up of slow tempos. But there is so much more.

Attached to the decision to play slowly is a kind of network of other less conscious decisions. Playing slowly means playing more deliberately, carefully and thoughtfully. Bands that play slowly also often play quietly – though there are plenty of exceptions to this, as this list attests – and with quietness there is always at least a notable level of vulnerability. Take a singer-songwriter performing with an acoustic guitar as example. With all other instrumentation stripped away beyond a voice and guitar there is little else to hide behind. The din of a band behind you can mask your imperfections, but in the songwriter scenario every mistake rings out like a pin drop. The difference is that everyone expects the delivery of the songwriter, but few walk into a rock show expecting the music played at a snail’s pace. Thus, slowcore bands are like rock music’s delegates of vulnerability. They are the raw, exposed nerve, the sensibility beneath a veil of noise, the pause in the constant stream of zealous stimulation.

As the name suggests, slowcore is not so much a musical movement but something that’s crept along, ever shifting and subtly evolving. Aside from it’s origins, it is tied to neither geography nor time. So-called slowcore bands came primarily from America, but there was also a significant presence of like minded acts spawning out of the UK (Hood, Tram) and Scandinavia (The White Birch). The German label, Glitterhouse, who partnered with Sub Pop until ’95, is to thank for getting American slowcore distributed abroad, and likewise assisted to the global awareness of European acts.

When considering bands that had an influence on the sound that’s come to define slowcore, Low is inevitably stuck at the top, with Red House Painters, Bedhead and Codeine close behind. Twenty years later and we’re still hearing the influence of these bands on more mainstream indie rock acts like Real Estate, Whitney, The XX, or even Beach House and Kurt Vile. It’s hard to say how many would actually site slowcore bands as influence, but the similarities are often undeniable. Aside from where slowcore has gone and where it continues to go, it’s beginnings are inextricably tied to the 90s, which then rippled into another smaller but significant wave in the early 2000s. For the next two weeks, The Alcohol Seed will look at ten albums from these eras of slowcore, presented and analyzed. So, let’s dive in…

Early Day Miners – Let Us Garlands Bring
(Secretly Canadian, 2002)

early_day_miners_let_us_garlands_bringSouthern Indiana based Early Day Miners have remained very low key since their humble beginnings in the late 90s. The band released 7 LPs, their last, Night People, surfacing in 2011. Since then the Miners have been mostly dormant, though members have been hinting at forthcoming activity for some time, but things remain uncertain. Early Day Miners (who, as of 2011 have gone by the shorthand EDM) seemed to draw from many wells of influence, including UK shoegaze and good ol’ Texan post-rock. The biggest statements in shoegaze had long left the pressing plants by the time of the Miners’ forming, but post-rockers like Godspeed and Mogwai were only just getting going. During the band’s nascent years, however, the Early Day Miners sound was unmistakably that of slowcore, apexing with 2002’s raw and sprawling Let Us Garlands Bring.

The band’s debut, 2000’s Placer Found, saw their sound a bit lost within ineffectual space. On Let Us Garlands Bring, the Miners fill in that space with just the right amount of additional instrumentation that never goes so far as to suffocate their sound. There is also an overall presence in the songs, a sense of deliberation and direction, that seemed lacking on the debut. Perhaps more than any other slowcore outfit, the Miners didn’t shy away from writing expansive music, bearing resemblance to Talk Talk’s later years. You can especially hear Laughing Stock in the song “Summer Ends,” with it’s languid unfolding of repetitive drums, clean guitars, and yes, harmonica. Experimental yet approachable, Let Us Garlands Bring was a vital late edition to the movement.

Codeine – Frigid Stars
(Glitterhouse / Sub Pop, 1990)

Codeine_Frigid_StarsIf there is a milestone slowcore album, then Codeine’s debut, Frigid Stars, is it. It is the oldest album on this list, and marks a subtle paradigm shift during a monumental time in modern music history, especially in regards to Pacific Northwest released music. Codeine was primarily a New York band, but Seattle based Sub Pop decided to release their debut at a time when grunge was all anyone was talking about. The label’s cofounder, Jonathan Poneman, has described the band’s music as “understated, elegant, forceful, and beautiful,” but also abhors the idea of Codeine as a pioneering slowcore band, and has referred to the so-called genre as a “made-up movement that reeks of critical contrivance.” Fair enough. We can at least both agree that the band’s music is beautiful.

Though they might immediately resemble a grunge or punk outfit, Codeine’s catalog, including Frigid Stars, sounds like nothing other than Codeine. One can only imagine the confusion of audiences walking into one of their shows, knowing that they were on Sub Pop and having no other information. I’m sure a lot people were shocked, and I only wish I could have been among the lot. As an album, Frigid Stars is pure, raw energy. Every note, every second of feedback has been greatly considered for its emotional impact. Whether it’s the massive slide guitar on “Pick-up Song,” the droning glacial riffs of “Second Chance,” or the acoustically driven and heartfelt “Pea,” Frigid Stars will remain nothing short of an understated classic.

Bedhead – WhatFunLifeWas
(Trance Syndicate, 1993)

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Bedhead was the brainchild of Texan brothers Matt and Bubba Kadane, who released three albums throughout the 90s, all bearing a nearly identical sound and similar minimalist artwork. Over a seven year run Bedhead grew into one of the more reliable acts that consistently played at slower tempos but whose songs were very technical. Unfortunately, the band’s dynamic range makes for an unenjoyable listen in social and public settings – you have to turn up the quiet parts to hear them but turn the volume back down during the loud parts. In a similar vein, I imagine that Bedhead’s music was probably difficult to record. Their records are best suited for quiet settings, either with headphones on or played on your home stereo during a time when you’re able to sit down and soak in the details.

Considering Bedhead’s catalog, their second album, Bedhead’d, is probably their most accessible, while Transaction de Novo, their third and final LP, is probably their most experimental. WhatFunLifeWas sits somewhere in between. The album is both rock inclined, with the additions of tracks like “Haywire” and “Living Well,” yet makes room for Yo La Tengo like mellowness on “Bedside Table” and a bit of rockabilly twang on “To the Ground”. “Powder,” the album’s centerpiece (if one feels so inclined to single one out), unfurls slowly even for Bedhead’s standards, and whose closing minutes of instrumental relief is one of the band’s finest moments on record.

Red House Painters – Red House Painters (Rollercoaster)
(4AD, 1993)
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Listening to Red House Painters in 2017 is opening a time capsule to when the artistic expression of one man was still deeply embedded in the emotions that made his music great. From then until now, Mark Kozelek has come very far, probably even further then he could have imagined when he was plugging away at his sound with the Painters. Sure, long-time fans will tell you that at some point his vision became warped and his music insincere as a result. Could any fan, say 10 years ago, have predicted the audio equivalent to a dog’s breakfast that is Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood? Probably not. But, the silver lining is that people are still discovering Mark’s music these days, not so much for the quality, I suspect, but for the sheer fact that he keeps pumping it out into the world. He’s just gotten to a point where he can reach a much wider audience. I say good for him, but for what this critic’s opinion might be worth, the guy peaked in ’93, right here with Rollercoaster.

When I ranked the Painters’ albums around the time I started this site, I mentioned that when Koz gets pissed at people who request old songs at his shows, it’s usually ones from Rollercoaster he jokingly refers to. It’s no coincidence. This album is simply packed with the best Painters material. Whether it’s “Mistress”,”Grace Cathedral Park”,”Strawberry Hill”,”Katy Song” or “Things Mean a Lot,” there is at very least one song that remains timeless for fans. For me, it’s “New Jersey,” the first of the Painters songs I ever heard. The song discovered me (how I like to think of it) at a time when I was deeply seeking a new musical obsession, something meaningful that would lead me down a fulfilling path of discovery. Kozelek’s music was it, and to this day I’m still winding down that path.

Duster – Contemporary Movement
(Up Records, 2000)

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If Codeine redefined slowcore as punk then Duster were its ambassadors of Lo-fi. The band’s output was minimal, with Contemporary Movement being their second and final album (the follow-up to the spotty but interesting Stratosphere from ’98). Contemporary Movement saw the band effectively go from a two-piece to a three-piece, with more creative involvement of past part-time member Jason Albertini. As a result, Duster’s final album became a fleshed-out slowcore masterpiece.

Duster created music that was as gritty as it was soothing, as distant as it was right up next to you. Galaxie 500 might be a half-decent comparison to the band’s sound, but Contemporary Movement rarely gets dreamy, nor does it take you on any reverbed guitar journeys. Instead, the band plod along over the course of 13 concise songs, the music’s brilliance revealed over time as a cocktail of great guitar tone, punchy instrumentals, and songs that hook one’s head into a slow nod and leave one’s finger in search of the repeat button.

Catch you next Monday, March 20, for part 2 of The Alcohol Seed’s 10 album slowcore feature.

What Does Rekindle Mean? Sun Kil Moon Meets Jesu

If there is something to be admired about Mark Kozelek, it’s that he doesn’t waste any time. Without missing a beat Koz has jumped into another Long Player after his 2015 effort, Universal Themes. This time he’s teamed up with Justin Broadrick, aka Jesu, for a collab not dissimilar in feel to Perils from the Sea, an album Kozelek made with Jimmy Lavalle (The Album Leaf) three years ago. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon also features some impressive cameos in the form of backup vocalists: Isaac Brock, Low, and Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell.

Like Lavalle’s role during the making of Perils… Broadrick, it seems, created instrumental tracks that Koz later added vocals to. It’s hard to say if Koz had any hand in the instrumentation as throughout it feels very much the brainchild of Broadrick. As a result we’re left with a SKM album that’s sludgier, doomier, and more shoegazey than about anything Koz has had his hand in. It also means Koz gets the green light to yelp and howl and tell stories of life’s minutiae, which, at this point if you’re a fan you’re bound to expect it.

Sun Kil Moon:Jesu

Jesu / Sun Kil Moon – Jesu / Sun Kil Moon
(Caldo Verde, 2016)

Though he does occasionally fall flat in his pursuits on the record, like on the overly wordy and all-together aimless “Carondelet” and “Sally,” Koz is still plugging away and proving he’s one of the better vocalists around. His range and memory for incredibly complex songs is something to behold, and when Broadrick intentionally slows things down we get to hear that complexity in tandem with the SKM that fans have come to appreciate for over a decade.

I’m still torn over Kozelek’s recent turn towards a more regurgitated, stream of consciousness lyrical style, but if one pays close attention to the first half of “America’s Most Wanted Mark Kozelek and John Dillinger” it becomes evident how much better he’s gotten at it. The track eventually loses some steam but is followed by “Exodus,” a softly sung tribute to all the bereaved parents of the world. “Exodus” is named after Mike Tyson’s daughter, who died at age four in a bizarre home treadmill accident. Nick Cave and his son are also mentioned, among others. Exodus is a heartfelt dedication that possess not a shred of insincerity and is contender for the album’s best song.

Jesu/Sun Kil Moon ends on the 14 minute, ambient-backed “Beautiful You”, where Koz sing/talks his way through aspects of daily life. Occasionally, the stories he tells segue appropriately back to the chorus, but more often than not they don’t. Koz doesn’t seem too worried about it either way. Ultimately, “Beautiful You” is among the songs that work on an album with a few major holes. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting addition to both artists’ respective catalogs. With time it may even be considered a milestone.

Red House Painters Albums Ranked

It is impossible to tell the Red House Painters story without first paying respect to the band’s founder, frontman and beating heart: Mark Kozelek. The story of Kozelek is as interesting as it is long and arduous. At a certain point in digging into his past, it becomes painfully clear how much his work has mirrored the life he leads. Music is, and always will be Kozelek’s life’s calling, and, like anything that perpetually follows one around like a ghost, his life’s burden.

After the dissolve of Red House Painters in the late 90s, Kozelek hit what one might consider the soul-searching part of his career, releasing a few covers albums before forming Sun Kil Moon with members from RHP (notably, drummer Anthony Koutsos and guitarist Phil Carney). Currently, as Kozelek’s career tumbles forth, his song writing grows less and less cryptic, to the point where, on his most recent album, Universal Themes, his songs have taken the form of wordy – if not overly self-righteous – confessionary pieces.

The plus side to Koz’s confessions are that we really get to know him, at least, as much as one can know somebody without ever meeting them. Anyone versed well enough in his career will know that beneath his abrasive persona lies a deeply sensitive individual. His songs reveal a man who’s dealt with depression, existential crises, infidelity guilt, and enough death around him for five life times.

As prolific an artist as Kozelek is it can be difficult to take a step back to consider it all. As a fan, what isn’t difficult is seeing the importance of the Red House Painter’s years among that timeline. It was Down Colorful Hill that put Koz and his band into motion in 92, and over the next four years the Painters would produce some of the best emotionally introspective rock music in history, finely balancing the soft and the loud, the delicate and the harsh, the happy and the oh so sad.

Red House Painters were the best slowcore act of the 90s, and that’s in the illustrious company of bands like Bedhead, Low, and Codeine. Today, Alcohol the Seed takes on the difficult task of placing the six studio albums by the Red House Painters into some kind of logical order. The challenge is that there isn’t a dud among them, so, inevitably, the task becomes a game of playing favourites. However, if something, anything, in the process can be revealed of the band and their enigmatic place on the totem of American underground music, then perhaps it’s a challenge worth baiting.

Bridge

6. Red House Painters (Bridge)

Red House Painters released two self-titled albums nicknamed after the imagines depicted on their covers. Bridge is essentially the sister album to Rollercoaster, both released in the same year, and both featuring different versions of “New Jersey” (Bridge featuring the electric while Rollercoaster featuring the acoustic). Bridge hints at Koz’s mastery for covers, with his version of Paul Simon’s “I am a Rock” taking the third track slot, and the “Star Spangled Banner” capping off the record. Neither cover seems to embody the RHP’s lonerism ethos as well as “Bubble” or “Blindfold,” leaving the album feeling a bit fractured, conceptually.

Fortunately, the one-two of “New Jersey” and “Uncle Joe” make up for the album’s shortcomings. “New Jersey” is like your favourite Tom Petty song heard slightly slowed down right when the drugs start to wear off, while “Uncle Joe” is RHP’s pinnacle of wrought, tear-inducing emotion.

Songs of note: Bubble, New Jersey, Uncle Joe.

Songs_For_A_Blue_Guitar

5. Songs For a Blue Guitar

Songs For a Blue Guitar is the most varied RHP release, made up of melancholic love songs, instrumental-heavy epics and classic rock covers. It seems almost ridiculous that Koz and the band would expect the listener to tag along during their joy ride of emotional ups and downs from one song to the next. However, for reasons I can’t exactly pin down, it all seems to work.

The first half of Songs… shines brighter than the second, with the snowflake-gentle “Have You Forgotten” easing the listener in. “Make Like Paper” is everything one would want to love from a twelve minute, guitar-centric rock song, without ever feeling like it meanders too far from its core hooks. “Trailways” easily cracks the band’s top-ten best songs, with guitar work foreshadowing Koz’s mid-2000s records as Sun Kil Moon.

Songs of Note: Have You Forgotten, Song for a Blue Guitar, Make Like Paper, Trailways, Revelation Big Sur.

Old_Ramon

4. Old Ramon

After its completion, it took three years for the RHP’s final album, Old Ramon, to be released. The fizzling out of the band, their severance from 4AD, and late 90s major label mergers all contributed to the album’s state of limbo. Sub Pop eventually picked it up in 2001, but by then Kozelek had already formed his new band.

If Songs for a Blue Guitar was a precursor to Koz’s new direction in sound, then Old Ramon might as well be considered Sun Kil Moon’s debut. Overall, the sound production is cleaner then any other RHP album, and the songs more approachable to those unfamiliar with the band. Anyone remotely interested in the mellower side of rock would find it nearly impossible not to fall in love with this record, whether it’s the classic rock influenced “Between Days,” the intimacy of “Void” and “Smokey,” or the early summer evening trance of “Cruiser,” there is a lot here to keep one coming back.

Songs of note: Byrd Joel, Void, Cruiser, River, Smokey.

Ocean_Beach

3. Ocean Beach

What was perhaps the most difficult thing about compiling this list was figuring out where to place Ocean Beach. From my first proper front-to-back listen to this very moment I’ve remained torn by my feelings towards the record.

The album is the Painter’s prettiest offering, with string arrangements, piano and classical-inspired guitar making appearances throughout. Ultimately, this was a deciding factor in bumping the album down from the second slot to number three (though it was a difficult call). Simply put, the Painter’s were best at their most raw, and Ocean Beach isn’t it.

To the band’s credit little can be said to dismiss the potency of “San Geronimo“, “Brockwell Park,” and the absolutely heart-breakingDrop.” And with enough time spent with Ocean Beach, its saving grace is revealed through the ever-present quiver in Kozelek’s vocal delivery, at each turn echoing a yearning to make sense of life, love, and one’s place amongst it all.

Songs of Note: San Geronimo, Shadows, Brockwell Park, Drop.

Down_Colorful_Hill

2. Down Colorful Hill

Album art is not always telling of the music within, but the cover for RHP’s debut album, Down Colorful Hill, couldn’t be more perfect. The cover depicts a quilted bed, old and eerie looking, in a rather bleak room. The photo itself looks ancient, sepia-toned and worn, and despite the fact that the bed is made, the scene is about the least inviting thing imaginable. One can almost picture the decrepit remains of a person being removed from that very bed only hours before the photo was taken.

Then you hit play and the slow crawl of “24” only reaffirms your dread. Despite the almost upbeat tempo of “Lord Kill the Pain,” Down Colorful Hill is RHP’s darkest effort. The 10+ minute title track marches forward with Anthony Koutsos behind the drums, gaining momentum as Kozelek howls “bred for success” into the ether. The sullen “Michael” closes things out with Koz forlornly reminiscing about an old friend who he tried to hunt down and reconnect with. Ultimately, like any attempt to reconcile an inevitable parting of ways, his efforts are to no avail.

Songs of note: Down Colorful Hill, Japanese to English, Michael.

Rollercoaster

1. Red House Painters (Rollercoaster)

As much as I hummed and hawed over the order of these records, from the beginning the number one spot was a no-brainer. Rollercoaster is RHP’s opus, and still Kozelek’s best album (yes, it’s better than Benji). Within seconds of the album’s opener, Grace Cathedral Park, the listener is swept into Kozelek’s intimate song world. It’s no coincidence that when Koz would later joke about his fans wanting to hear him play songs from the 90s during current tours, that it’s the songs from Rollercoaster he mentions.

The music of the Red House Painters possesses a strange hold over the listener that is difficult to come by and even harder to explain. It can almost be equated to the act of drowning, where an immediate attempt to understand pain and struggle is soon followed by a tranquility that comes from letting go. Rollercoaster best exemplifies that analogy, possessing some of the band’s most distressed music, which, if one allows, can seed itself inside you and grow into something beautiful.

Songs of note: Grace Cathedral Park, Katy Song, Mistress, Take Me Out, Strawberry Hill, Brown Eyes.

Caldo Verde

The New Year: The Kadane Brothers Post-Bedhead

In terms of music, the Kadane brothers were attached at birth. Together, they formed slowcore giants Bedhead at the dawn of the 90s, a colossal decade for music both in America and abroad. Grunge was in full force on the northwest coast, the 2nd-gen emo movement was ramping up in the midwest, and My Bloody Valentine, Lush, and similar shoegazers were well into entrancing audiences with reverie-inducing vocals set to a backdrop of distorted guitars. After their third and final album, Transaction De Novo, from 1998, Bedhead faded into relative obscurity. Three years later the Kadanes emerged again as The New Year with Mike Donofrio and Codeine’s Chris Brokaw.

The Kadanes have hit the three album mark once again, and though it looked like The New Year, too, would call it quits there, the band recently teased on social media that a new album is in the works. That’s welcome news to fans who’ve waited seven years since their last LP. Until then, here is a rundown of The New Year’s full length albums to date.

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The New Year – Newness Ends
Touch and Go, 2001

In Mark Richardson’s excellent Pitchfork review of the Bedhead boxset that was released nearly a year ago on Numero Group, he posits that the first album you ever hear from the band will likely become your favourite in the end. Strangely, in my case, that came true for both Bedhead and The New Year. Newness Ends, however, was the last album I heard from the band, and remains the most elusive to these ears. Kadane albums have a track record for slipperiness, often taking weeks of listening to take shape. This is one of the band’s most admiral qualities, consistently bringing you back in order to figure it out, as if their albums are a puzzle that one needs to exercise intense focus in cracking.

All things considered, The New Year are less slippery than Bedhead. This is in part, not only to the added instrumentation – mainly piano – but to the origins of New Year songs coming from drum parts and developing from there (the Kadane’s have revealed in interviews that Bedhead songs originated almost exclusively from guitar parts). I’d argue that starting with drums rather than guitars will give a band a bigger, more rock-oriented sound, as percussion suddenly becomes central to every song rather than something that’s added later to compliment existing sounds. Matt Kadane’s signature speak/sing vocals interestingly counterpoint the adopted heavier sound, providing many of the kick-driven tracks with an airiness, and keeping the mood light.

Kadane projects seem almost hellbent on being “album” bands – Wilco, too, comes to mind – where the idea of a standout song quickly evaporates. Releasing singles, too, seems almost pointless other than to provide more exposure, as any given song heard in isolation couldn’t possibly give a real indication of the band’s vision. For example, “Reconstruction,” with its infectious intertwining guitar parts, is given more potency budding heads with “Gasoline,” an, if not somewhat tongue-in-cheek, kind of love/hate relationship song about the petroleum product we know so well. As the debut album for their new band, the Kadanes proved they never lost their virtuoso respect for the album as an artistic artifact.

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The New Year – The End is Near
Touch and Go, 2004

The End is Near is The New Year’s masterpiece. I tend to think of this record as the sister album to Whatfunlifewas, mainly because both were my first listens and eventual favourites from either band, respectively. Also, both albums have similar 7+ minute sprawling centerpiece tracks, The End is Near with “18,” and whatfunlifewas with “Powder.” Of the Kadane’s respective discographies only a few songs have bridged that seven minute mark.

If there was any doubt that The New Year was expanding on the Bedhead sound, the opening piano/keyboard phrase of the album’s title track casts that doubt out the window. The album doesn’t really get going, however, until the third track, “Chinese Handcuffs,” luring the listener in with a bass line that’s down right funky before breaking into an instrumental flurry midway through. The chunk of songs that make up the middle of the album are The New Year at their finest. “Plan B” kicks off with a very simple, Bedhead-esque guitar pattern while Kadane almost moans together the lines “This isn’t breaking my back / but my spirit,” and the rest of the band comes in strong until the end. “Disease” slows things down again, because, ultimately, the band is never in a rush to take their songs anywhere but where they naturally end up. “Age of Conceit” crackles to life after the lines “give me back my childhood / but let me keep my beard / I’ll be the freakish little man” in what is probably the best closing statement the band has made on any song. “Start” is the closest head-nodding rock song among the lot with an opening minute that make you want to hit repeat, setting up the aforementioned “18” and the album’s intimate closer “Stranger Is Kindness.”

Listened back upon with the luxury of eleven years since its release, The End is Near is easily The New Year’s most concise and profound record.

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The New Year – The New Year
Touch and Go, 2008

Before settling into years of marginal activity, The New Year released their self-titled third album, capping a span of releases that showcased the band’s commitment to their unique sound. Growth in their sound over the years isn’t obvious, rather, The New Year seemed committed to an idea from the beginning, tweaking that idea ever so slightly with every release. Whether this was the result of keen deliberation or a natural outcome to the artistic processes behind the music, is left, at least partly, up for debate. Perhaps more will be revealed about the band’s process in the days leading to and following their long overdue fourth album. Either way, the consistency of the Kadanes should be the envy of most, if not all, contemporary bands on the mellower side of the rock spectrum–whether they know about the band or not.

There has always been a kind of living room philosophy to Matt Kadane’s song writing, a comfortable blandness addressing everyday encounters, the monotony of the working man, and the ebb and flow of human relationship. That’s not to say the song writing is boring, but that it refrains from falling into the trap of unnecessary idealism. If all this translates to the band being, in one way or another, “grounded,” then The New Year is the band’s most grounded record. After all, in a musician’s career that’s culminated to more than half a dozen albums, plenty of touring experience, and a dedicated fan base, what better place is there to be than staring straight ahead with feet firmly on the ground?

The New Year Official Website
The New Year at Discogs
The New Year on Facebook