SOMEHOW, THROUGH SOME bizarre warp in the folk-rock universe, Mark Kozelek has become the most unlikely cover artist in the history of the medium. More unlikely than Johnny Cash? Jesus, yes. With Cash's Rick Rubin-produced covers albums, there was something obvious about the absurdity of pairing his uniquely gravelly voice with songs by Will Oldham, Nick Cave, or Trent Reznor. It was like, "Hey, let's see what this song would sound like with Johnny Cash singing it!" And after decades and decades of a legendary music career, it was like Cash was passing on the torch to another generation of songsters.
But this story ain't about Johnny Cash, god rest his soul. It's about weird, enchanting Mark Kozelek, whose career choices are as confounding as they are amusing. From Red House Painters to his solo work, and now with Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek's formula has remain unchanged: NyQuil-slow tempos, sparse instrumentation, lilting vocals with the end of every line drawn out until it becomes almost a drone-y instrument of its own. It's a formula that, in the '90s, was more rebellious than anything punk could attempt. (Now, of course, it fits right in with Starbucks albums and the soundtrack to Gilmore Girls.)
As a solo artist Kozelek started applying that formula to mind-bending cover songs—beginning with AC/DC, on What's Next to the Moon. But what should have been just an amusing novelty actually managed to stand on its own, alongside the best of Kozelek's original work—at least in part because he thoroughly remade the songs in his likeness.
Now, he's followed up Sun Kil Moon's terrific and gorgeous debut, Ghosts of the Great Highway, with potentially the most absurd set of covers imaginable—11 Modest Mouse songs, that make up Sun Kil Moon's second record, Tiny Cities. I'm in no way a fan of Modest Mouse, but I've had enough "friends" who adore them to have heard these goddamn songs ad infinitum. And honestly, I can't tell if I like Kozelek's versions better or not and, ultimately, I'm too distracted trying to figure why, exactly, such a talented songwriter would tackle material that is only held together by Isaac Brock's repetitive, goat-like yelping. (According to the press release mythology, Kozelek saw Modest Mouse perform at San Francisco's Fillmore a couple of years ago and "sensed something original and explosive." It was "Brock's cathartic, rapid-fire vocal delivery—words shot forth in no discernable pattern" that inspired the idea of a covers album, though, curiously, Kozelek's treatment of the songs abandons all of those elements.)
But here's the really odd thing: As with the AC/DC covers album, Kozelek took ownership of the songs, completely and convincingly remaking them as his own, to an extent that Johnny Cash was never able to pull off—and to the extent that my faith in Kozelek has been reaffirmed, despite still seriously questioning his selection of material. Tiny Cities is, above all else, a Mark Kozelek album—full of Nick Drake-jocking acoustic guitar and soaring falsettos.
This is the man, after all, who wrote "Wop-A-Din-Din," one of the sexiest songs ever written—about his cat. And I'm pretty sure my first kiss was soundtracked by Red House Painters' Down Colorful Hill.
That almost makes up for his cover of "Convenient Parking."