Sun Kil Moon and Antarctica

Local legend Mark Kozelek takes on the songs of Modest Mouse

The weird thing is, he describes it like a compulsion, as if he can't help himself.

"You know that feeling when you see some amazing mystery movie and you can't stop thinking about it for three days?" Mark Kozelek asks, referring to the first time he saw Modest Mouse. "It was like that, only it lasted a year. And the next thing I know I'm playing 'Neverending Math Equation' at my Sun Kil Moon shows. And then I wake up one day and realize I've recorded 11 of their songs."

He's talking about his latest little record, Tiny Cities Made of Ashes, an album of Modest Mouse covers arriving at a record store near you this very week.

If you're familiar with Kozelek's work, it's most likely through his former band, the Red House Painters, a slow-and-heavy altrock act that was one of the defining groups of the San Francisco music scene throughout the '90s. Or maybe you know him through Sun Kil Moon, his current project, which released last year the masterful Ghosts of the Great Highway, the songwriter's first body of original work since the Painters' swan song in 2001. Or perhaps you just know Kozelek 'cause you live in Nob Hill and you've seen him walking around the same streets he's been walking around, frequenting the same doughnut shop he's been frequenting, for more than a dozen years.

Those of you who don't know Kozelek or his music need to high-tail it to Amoeba right this second and correct that, because this man, I believe, is one of our city's greatest treasures. Even after close to 20 years of doing the rock star thing, he's still plenty gracious, the kind of guy you can approach after not speaking to for a year and receive a firm handshake and a warm greeting, which is what happened recently when I bumped into him at a Nada Surf show.

So about this record. When I got it in the mail, I put it on excitedly, as I would any new Sun Kil Moon album. A few echoey harmonics rang out from an acoustic guitar, and Kozelek started singing, his voice rich and sinewy. The first couple of songs were slow and meditative, warm guitar lines mingling with that distinctive voice, a sound I've come to love and expect from this guy. Then the third song began: "I'm the same/ As I was when I was 6 years old/ Oh my God I feel so damn old/ I don't really feel anything."

"Wait a second," I thought to myself. "Is he ... no, it couldn't be ...." Realizing what was happening -- that Kozelek was coveringthese songs -- I shat myself.

See, a whole album of Mark Kozelek doing Modest Mouse is like shoots and ladders for me, being the fan of both that I am. It's also not the most obvious pairing, what with Kozelek known for fashioning primarily placid, smoky tunes and the Mouse known for crafting jittery indie rock. Then again, Kozelek releasing an album's worth of AC/DC covers might not have seemed to make much sense either, but he did that in 2001. Aside from a deep appreciation for Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock's music and lyrics, Kozelek isn't quite sure why he decided to cover this band or these tunes.

"These songs -- they kind of chose me," he says.

His approach with Tiny Cities was to take the frenetic pace of the originals and slow it way down. So a song like the title track is transformed from schizophrenic proto-dance punk into a pensive acoustic number. On some tunes, like "Neverending Math Equation" and "Dramamine," Kozelek keeps the vocal lines and inflection mostly intact, playing more with the arrangements (on the latter, Brock's legendary wandering guitar line becomes sharply strummed barre chords). Others receive a more dramatic facelift: "Jesus Christ Was an Only Child" is not in Kansas anymore; it's a dreamy, violin- and xylophone-accented sashay, no longer a harried stomp.

The grand finale -- and the good news for people who liked Good News for People Who Love Bad News, Modest Mouse's multiplatinum smash from last year -- is "Ocean Breathes Salty," the original album's second hit single. Nixing the sputtering bounce of Brock's version, Kozelek offers up a heartbreaking lullaby. His delicate picking and quiet singing effectively change Brock's indictment into a lament: "Well, that is that and this is this/ You tell me what you want and I'll tell you what you get/ You get away from me."

This last feat -- Kozelek's reframing of the meaning of some songs -- is one of the new album's neatest tricks. Brock's appeal is that he comes off like an angst-filled manic-depressive, bleating one moment, cooing the next. Kozelek is an oak. Or rather a willow, solid but sad. He sounds like he's singing to himself, not screaming at someone who done him wrong.

Before Kozelek and I wrap up our conversation, I have to ask the obvious fanboy question: What does Modest Mouse think of these reworkings? Humble as always, Kozelek says that he has yet to get a response to a CD he mailed the band.

"You know, whatever, it's just an art project I did," he says, like an embarrassed teenager. Then he adds, with a laugh, "It would be great if those guys liked it, and if they don't like it, there's always celebrity boxing."

 
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