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Mark Kozelek, Union Chapel, Islington, July 29th 2010

July 31, 2010

In the mid-90s, Mark Kozelek‘s band Red House Painters made a name for themselves playing slow, introspective rock. Variously (and horribly) dubbed ‘sadcore’ or ‘shoegazing’, the band in fact stretched those genres’ boundaries, with intelligent lyrics and greater melodic and lyrical variety than most of the bands they were bracketed with. Not that I knew any of this at the time – their career coincided with my ‘baby gap’ years – and I didn’t come across Mark until I heard a couple of his solo AC/DC cover versions. These extraordinary reworkings were eventually collected on Mark’s first solo album, What’s Next To The Moon, in 2001. So extraordinary, in fact, that you really have to listen to Mark’s version of Love At First Feel:And if you don’t know the original, here it is:Up to that point, Mark’s solo work had mostly been covers, but he got together again with some of his Red House Painters colleagues to form Sun Kil Moon and in 2003 they released the impressive Ghosts Of The Great Highway, featuring some mighty Crazy Horse-style jams, heavy workouts and several songs about boxing, including the brilliant Salvador Sanchez. Mark was still recording cover versions, however, and his 2005 Sun Kil Moon album of Modest Mouse covers, Tiny Cities, is excellent.

2008’s April showed a band at the peak of their game, so I was eager to hear Sun Kil Moon’s latest album, Admiral Fell Promises, released a couple of weeks ago. In typically perverse fashion, this is perhaps Mark’s most solo effort, in fact, and features ten songs with Mark on Spanish guitar and vocals. The style has Spanish inflections (apparently he’s been obsessed with Segovia recently), but it’s underpinned by the unmistakable relaxed sound of Mark’s native San Francisco too.

Astral came with me to the gig (partly with the lure of some delicious homemade food in the bar beforehand), but she’s not a big fan. In fact, I don’t know many other fans – although Parky joined us for the gig – as I think a lot of people find Mark’s music rather distant and uninvolving. He comes across as a something of a grump, which is OK by me but which doesn’t commend him to the ‘touchy-feely’ school of singer-songwriting. It does lead to some fun from the stage, however, with Mark perennially haranguing his audience for being boring and male (actually not at this show – the mix was much closer to 50-50 male-female than most gigs I go to). He clearly tries hard to be friendly and nice, but I don’t think it comes easy to him.

This aloofness doesn’t bother me, as I’m not seeking to become personal friends with an artist on stage. It’s one of the most prevalent singer-songriter fallacies to associate the singer with the lyrics and, because of the personal meaning one attaches to the song, to make a personal link between oneself and the artist. I’ve met plenty of people who really think that so-and-so songwriter is one of their greatest friends, only they haven’t met them yet…

The lack of bonhomie and anecdotage actually helps Mark’s shows, though, and when he started off with Ålesund from the new album, I thought how much I enjoy sitting, listening and concentrating on his music. A whole show of solo songs is not an easy trick to pull off, as I mentioned in my Jeff Tweedy review, and I suspect many audiences wouldn’t have the patience for it, even if they liked the sound. It’s not a laidback gig, but concentration and patience is rewarded handsomely.

After two well-sung ‘standards’, Duk Koo Kim and Moorestown, we had three songs from the new album, Half Moon Bay, Third And Seneca and You Are My Sun. The first of these has a personal appeal, as Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco, is where I head to in October each year to meet up with fellow ‘Rusties’ (Neil Young nuts) to jam, laugh, drink, sing, chat and enjoy the music before heading off to the International Rust Fest and the wonderful Bridge School Benefit shows.

Mark’s guitar-playing is very accomplished – though it’s never been sloppy and his Segovia fixation has clearly upped his guitar-playing to a very impressive level. Next is another audience favourite, Carry Me Ohio, followed by a lovely rendition of Red House Painters’ Katy Song. The Leaning Tree, from the new record, was equally good and was followed by Australian Winter, another of the globe-trotting songs from that record.

The geographical nature of much of the new work reminds me of Phosphorescent’s recent majestic album Here’s To Taking It Easy, which has a similar vibe of being in the world but not of it, despite its relaxed sound and reflective tone. The last song of the show was Heron Blue, from April, but an enthusiastic audience (who had listened in admirable silence all night) brought him back for three encores – Void, Blue Orchids and abridged rendition of Bay Of Skulls from the new album. To be fair to Mark, he said he hadn’t played it live before, and the song’s closing passage is a bugger, so we’ll forgive him.

I’d enjoyed the evening a lot, though I understand why Mark is something of a minority taste. He doesn’t want to be your friend, his songs are unadorned and he ‘doesn’t do “jolly”‘ as Martin Carthy calls it, but that’s fine by me. Here’s Half Moon Bay from the new album:

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