Old, Old, Old Ramon

Temporarily in Los Angeles working on a movie, Red House Painters' Mark Kozelek still doesn't know when his next record's coming out

Critically acclaimed but modest-selling albums followed, the finest of which remains 1995's Ocean Beach, a collection of gorgeous acoustic madrigals, clarion-call electric guitar hooks, and one mordant 13-minute song, "Drop," that's the best Kozelek's ever written. A deathbed meditation along the lines of Van Morrison's "TB Sheets," it lays out all of Kozelek's passive-aggressive tendencies: He's in love, sure, but as he tells the woman lying there (lover? sister? mother?), "My hate for you makes my feelings altogether drop."

Kozelek's main talent is his ability to write a confessional love song without coming off like a whiner or a wimp. Once upon a time, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Richard Thompson, and Neil Young were all masters of that trick, but Kozelek's best moments have proved you can still twist the knife in the '90s with an acoustic guitar. "The attention I need is much more serious/ A kind of weight you couldn't lift," he croons on "Mistress," and then the kicker: "Even if your cheap career depended on it."

Yet he's capable of making a joke: "I picked up my brush-painted blue guitar/ And I ripped off the chords from 'Bron Y Aur,' " he once sang. And he has funny taste in cover songs: On record, he's made Kiss' "Shock Me" and "The Star Spangled Banner" sound like some of the greatest love songs you've ever heard, and recovered Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs" as a lyric worth hearing. "I hate that song," Kozelek says. "I absolutely hate that song, [but] there's redeeming qualities in lyrics that you don't see because of the stupid production and the stupid musical arrangements and the stupid melody that goes with it."

By comparison the songs on Old Ramon are simply pretty; the stakes don't seem quite so high for Kozelek, and the songs aren't quite so desperate. The opening "Wop a Din-Din" is about Kozelek's cat, a subject he uses to tinker with the language of abusive relationships, to wit: "If I roll and kick around/ I might knock her to the ground/ But she'll come back anyhow." Elsewhere, he romanticizes driving in Los Angeles ("Cruiser"), John Denver ("Golden"), the Midwest ("Michigan"). What's most engaging about Old Ramon is its textures: the gracefully massaged feedback, the backup vocals that chime in, the way a song like "River" waits longer than five minutes to unfurl its wash of guitars.

If it's not Kozelek's masterpiece, it's still a record of which he can be proud, and worth releasing for reasons beyond simply trying to recover a six-figure recording debt. In the meantime, he'll have to settle for knowing that at least two records of his work have actual release dates this summer. On July 20, 4AD releases Red House Painters' two-CD Retrospective, which includes one disc of songs culled from the group's four albums for that label, and a second devoted to previously unreleased songs, live tracks, and demos. And on June 8, local label Badman Recording Company releases Shanti Project Collection, which includes four Red House Painters songs -- a portion of the profits from the sales will go to the Castro's AIDS support organization Shanti Project. The album also includes tracks from like-minded sleepy rock groups Low, Idaho, Hayden, and Misc (fronted by Badman owner, album compiler, and friend-of-Kozelek Dylan Magierek). In addition to "Find Me, Ruben Olivares" and a demo version of Old Ramon's "Smokey," two of Kozelek's contributions are covers, more unlikely suspects from pop history: Genesis' "Follow You, Follow Me," and Neil Young's "Midnight on the Bay."

Mostly, though, it's all Hollywood for Kozelek, at least for the time being. "I hate to even talk about these things," he groans. "I'm really, really glad that I got this part in this movie. I'm having fun, it's great. But I wish my record would come out, and that my band could be out doing what we do.

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