Red House Painters – Rollercoaster

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I’ve never liked Red House Painters, and I’ve done my due diligence of listening to every album to make sure of it. Mark Kozelek has never been able to write a tune, much less sing one. That being said, Rollercoaster – being early in his musical career – has more of that than much that follows. Mark Kozelek, regardless of whether operating under Red House Painters or Sun Kil Moon, has always been guilty of one of the most perverse things about the 90s, that is, making albums that are too long with songs that are too long. 76 minutes?!?!?! To wit: “Funhouse” and “Mother” are literal black holes on the only Red House Painters album where the average song length is a thankful 4 minutes; tons of reverb to mask the aforementioned lack of tune, with the former’s just going through the motions of “Katy’s Song”‘s conclusion without the catharsis that makes the latter so successful. Elsewhere, “Down Through” is a decent placeholder between the album’s two highest highs, and if you blink, you’ll miss closer “Brown Eyes,” whose tune doesn’t emerge until the last thirty seconds. Mark Kozelek only writes songs about depression. And if you compare this mindset to some of his contemporaries, like Elliott Smith and Mark Linkous (both of which he namedrops later in his career), or Kurt Cobain, or Billy Corgan, you’ll realize why Mark Kozelek doesn’t compare to any of them. Elliott Smith actually had brief flashes of optimism hidden in his music (not to mention he sang better and played guitar better and employed vocal harmonies that actually harmonized instead of whatever they’re doing here); see “Say Yes” and “Baby Britain” for empirical evidence of the fact. Ditto Mark Linkous; see “Happy Man” for more details. Moreover, all of these artists, and especially both Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan had fight in their songs; the music suggested – wanted – a way out.

Not to say that Rollercoaster doesn’t have its charms. It actually has more charms than any other Red House Painters album. In less words, this is the best Red House Painters album. “Grace Cathedral Park” has a gentle nudge from the drums; a detail that’s missing in a lot of Sun Kil Moon’s work, and the song’s bridge (“Here on the ground, we’re so far away…”) is well-executed. But the best bit is the outro, where Kozelek asks the other person a string of questions, “Tell me why are you like this? Are you the same with anyone? Save me from my sickness…” and I like it for the same reason I like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s “I See a Darkness”; the depression that the narrator suffers from is never explicit and there’s an underlying thought that the other person can save them from it. The first “Mistress” could fit right at home on Loveless, and though I’ve made my indifferent position on that album clear, I mean this as the upmost compliment. The piano line of “Things Mean A Lot” might be the prettiest thing about the entire album. The guitar lines of “Katy Song” is second, helping that song never feel like its 8 minute runtime, complete with the album’s most memorable lyric; “Without you, what does my life amount to?”, a “God only knows what I’d be without you” for Generation X. The female backing vocals of “Take Me Out” – which should have happened more often, even if that means that Red House Painters would have been indistinguishable from Low, the other half of the slowcore conglomerate – is also up there.

Also: gorgeous cover art.

[The rest of this review is about Mark Kozelek’s latest song. You can feel free to skip to the end or stick around. Up until this point in time, Mark Kozelek has been easy to ignore; his music doesn’t impose on you, you’re never going to hear him on the radio and his acclaim isn’t even remotely equal to that of Elliott Smith, Kurt Cobain or Billy Corgan (and it shouldn’t be equal to that of Mark Linkous’, though I fear it is). Most recently though, the man’s name has been everywhere in music news for some of the dumbest Old-Man-Yells-At-Cloud antics I’ve ever seen, beginning with yelling at an audience for being chatty (“Fuckin’ hillbillies”), making a t-shirt to commemorate the occasion (Serious question #1: did anyone buy the shirt? Serious question #2: does anyone who bought the shirt wear the shirt in public? Serious question #3: does anyone who bought the shirt and wears the shirt in public enjoy the company of other people?) and culminating with releasing a song called “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock.” Music publications jumped on the issue like it was some Kendrick Lamar-“Control” or Jay-Z-“Takedown” shit. “Greatest indie diss song?” I mean, I guess, only on the account that those are as rare as unicorns such even if the first unicorn we see is the ugliest and meanest thing in the world, it will also the greatest unicorn by default.

And the hilarious thing is, it never manages an actual diss against (the) War on Drugs. Yes, it did take (the) War on Drugs “nine fucking years” to make three albums if you forget about the fact that Kurt Vile has a solo career. Yes, (the) War on Drugs do sound completely derivative, but it’s not like Mark Kozelek has had an original idea throughout his career. And I’m sure Kozelek is being tongue-in-cheek when he claims (the) War on Drugs is “the whitest band I’ve ever heard,” not that that was an insult in the first place. The only insults that are passed around are the easy ones, the “suck my cock”’s, the “Some spoiled bitch rich kid blogger brat”’s, the “All you rednecks, shut the fuck up”’s the “go fuck yourself”’s, and one of those is reserved for himself.

Now, most publications just did what they’re supposed to do – note that the song has been released, write a small write-up about the song and then figure out what’s the next big/best thing to write about. Others went further. Pitchfork featured an article written by Perfect Pussy’s Meredith Graves that got a lot of flak for spinning the issue into a wider issue on feminism. But the article as a whole doesn’t deserve flak; here are the most relevant points:

~“It seems this is most people’s opinion of the one-sided beef: Kozelek, a notorious curmudgeon, isn’t doing anything harmful by harassing these guys. In fact, he’s just doing what he’s always done—being a grumpy ass who doesn’t seem to care what people think of him. These same people insist that ignoring him and letting him continue to do this kind of stuff is the best option moving forward. To speak up about this kind of behavior from artists and performers is to inevitably be met with, “Lighten up, not everything has to be political, it’s just for entertainment.”

When Mark Kozelek chose to start and carry on a completely one-sided and extremely public feud with a band who genuinely did nothing wrong, who chose not to retaliate and even stated their position as fans of his work, who seem hurt and confused by Kozelek’s constant public attacks that persisted for weeks and how said attacks affected their year—that doesn’t seem like entertainment. It’s important to call it what it is: emotional abuse.”

~“This problem definitely doesn’t get better when publications (including some that have, in the past, exhibited a modicum of moral and journalistic integrity) grant column space and attention to men who publicly engage in harassment and abuse. If we act like a sociopathic bent toward punishing complete strangers is newsworthy, if a song that refers to a female music writer as “some spoiled bitch” is by your estimation a “nice account” or “the diss track of the century,” that blatantly reinforces that this sort of behavior is not only acceptable but worthy of praise and attention.

So don’t write this off as the ranting of a cantankerous character, and definitely don’t take the advice of so many enablers and ignore it. Instead, think critically about what this sort of behavior represents on a larger scale: human behavior doesn’t come from nowhere, these traits are learned and reinforced by larger oppressive systems that also systematically disenfranchise people in many other ways. If we desire a more just world—and a better music scene for sure—we would be doing ourselves a favor to take the space we would normally dedicate to men like this and give it over to artists who represent a broader diversity of voices. This goes for music as well as art, literature, politics, any area where middle-aged white men have the most agency to make sure their voices are heard. The more of us there are, the more things will be like the show that pissed Kozelek off in the first place; no matter how cruel their banter gets, at the end of the day, we’ll still be louder.”

Basically, don’t commend this behavior, for fuck’s sakes. Tolerating it is better, but we shouldn’t have to tolerate it, either.]

[The actual song, by the way, is actually okay; the guitar line that the entire song revolves around is one of late-period Kozelek’s better ones, although the choruses are completely melodyless, regardless of however many times he layers himself.]

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