Do you know what would make “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” better? By removing the randomly falsetto-ed bits that slap you awake so you’re naked and trembling out of the acoustic bed, and maybe have the singer shout the “Does anybody know a way that a body could get away” to make it seem more urgent. Maybe toss in a really groovy bassline that’ll make the song oddly danceable or give your car some bounce as you’re listening to it on a long drive for someone with nothing to think about. I know it sounds crazy, but I think it could work.
Do you know what would make “Neverending Math Equation” better? By removing the backing vocals during “Infinity spirals out creation” (meta does not necessarily make something good) and removing the empty spaces (“Oh my God and oh my cat / I told my Dad what I need /(full measure rest) / Well I know what I have and want,” etc.), and maybe giving the song a plane-ride-towards-a-mountain-type climax instead of the unnatural anticlimax found here, switching from the strummed 3-chord approach to a sudden fingerpicked one.
Do you know what would make “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child” better? By singing it with some humour that leaves it ambiguous as to whether it’s a mockery of religion (“Should have killed that little fucker”) or an allegory for parenting spoiled kids (“Should have insured that planet / Before it crashed / Worked real hard to make internet cash / Work your fingers to the bone”). Instead, are we supposed to feel sorry that Jesus Christ didn’t have any siblings growing up? Because that’s what Mark Kozelek makes it feel like.
I had originally set out to do a “Do you know what would make … better?” for every song here by highlighting some features of the original counterparts, but I realized that despite my cynicism, some of the songs here do work, especially for the songs that I didn’t care for to begin with. The overhead chimes of “Exit Does Not Exist” is the stuff of dream pop and the minimal arrangement focuses you on how great Isaac Brock’s lyrics were. The same occurs with the first few lines of “Neverending Math Equation,” which becomes a much more sobering experience (and you know, despite my stance how he executed the second half, I acknowledge that fingerpicked 12-string guitars sound good in any circumstance). I miss the chiming guitars of “Ocean Breathes Salty” but I also know that removing the “You missed! You missed!” backing vocals that cluttered the original while trying to make it more radio-friendly was a good idea (still, this one’s lacking in melody). “Grey Ice Water” is probably the best of the bunch thanks to some female backing vocals, military drums (I guess percussion was a detail that couldn’t be bothered with anywhere else here) and some pretty guitarwork in the final half. Furthermore, as opposed to other Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon projects, these 11 tracks are only 30 minutes long, and that’s a welcome brevity.
That being said, I also know that there’s someone somewhere out there who is just as technically proficient with the acoustic guitar (if not more), with a better voice and who had loved Modest Mouse before “Float On” (which is how Mark Kozelek stumbled onto the band in the first place) and who recorded their own versions of their favorite songs on the band, but he/she had the good sense not to release it for the world to hear.
Modest Mouse set themselves aside from most other bands in the 90s, because, while Isaac Brock wrote lyrics that were almost always depressing, the music more often than not understood that there’s more to life than just depression – that there’s humor and there’s angst that you can use to fight it.
Mark Kozelek, whether by himself, with Red House Painters or Sun Kil Moon, doesn’t understand that.