December 1, 2005

Sun Kil Moon: Tiny Cities

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Covers are a tricky business. The most successful covers are usually those that are the furthest removed from their origins. A decent cover will add (sometimes through subtraction) something to the original that utterly transforms it into a new, relevant song. Well, Mark Kozelek loves covers: he’s recorded everything from John Denver to AC/DC, surprising because Kozelek is such an accomplished songwriter in his own right, from his early acclaimed work with Red House Painters to his latest venture with Sun Kil Moon. Like fellow singer/songwriters Jason Molina and Damien Jurado, Kozelek unassumingly creates his own private world of melancholic, evocative narratives.

So it’s not unusual that fresh on the heels of Sun Kil Moon’s bittersweet debut album, Ghosts of the Great Highway, Kozelek has released an album of solely Modest Mouse covers. Originally I blanched at the idea, as the two bands’ different aesthetics seemed irreconcilable and risky. And it is. Tiny Cities, Sun Kil Moon’s sophomore effort, is a strange, meandering affair. And not one bit of it sounds a damn thing like Modest Mouse. But Kozelek makes it perfectly clear that it was never supposed to. Tiny Cities is not so much an album of covers as it is an album of interpretations. Secrecy and intimacy is at the heart of Tiny Cities: Kozelek picks Modest Mouse songs from every full-length they’ve ever released, strips them naked and then rebuilds them according to his particular, dreamlike vision (as in the ominous, tense “Convenient Parking”).

Those who expect Modest Mouse’s characteristically eccentric dynamism or Isaac Brock’s broken grimaces are advised to run and hide. Except for the luminous lyrics (without which this album would be an immediate failure), Tiny Cities is almost entirely absent of Modest Mouse’s unorthodox genius. Kozelek tries to embrace the original songs, but instead suffocates them with an unvarying, homogenous alt-folk sound. Kozelek seeks out seeds of ideas in Brock’s originals and plants them within his own realm of experience. Songs are simultaneously expanded and condensed, drawn out and cut short, and the final product is just barely recognizable as being covers. Kozelek’s interpretations spring forth from the wide expanse of the Pacific Northwest, yet most songs run under two minutes, and as a consequence, ideas are scarcely explored before they are systematically abandoned (opening track “Exit Does Not Exist” intrigues with its delicate guitar picking, but then drifts to an ambiguous end at only 1:24). This is a marked departure from their sprawling rock epics like “Carry Me Ohio” in Ghosts of the Great Highway.

Kozelek abandons the oscillating, wandering guitar lines of “Dramamine” in favor of gentle acoustic guitar and Neil Young-esque vocals. Anchored by Brock’s tragic lyrics, Kozelek’s “Dramamine” is a wholeheartedly minimalist take, but still maintains a similar sense of desperation and helplessness. “Neverending Math Equation” attains a fresh sheen of loveliness with Kozelek’s addition of lilting, dreamy percussion. Brock’s idiosyncratic lyrics like “Where do you move when what you’re moving from is yourself?” take on a new dimension of wistfulness and nostalgia.

The most obvious misstep on Tiny Cities is Kozelek’s tepid, monotonous cover of “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” from Modest Mouse’s spellbinding 2000 album The Moon & Antarctica. Brock’s violent lyrics lose their power and are entirely incompatible with Kozelek’s honeyed, hypnotic singing style (“I’m going to hit you on the face / I’m going to punch you in your glasses” could not seem more out of place). The original is vintage Modest Mouse: punchy, infinitely catchy and fiercely bipolar. “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” was meant to be a claustrophobic, grooving masterpiece, a critique of impersonal urban sprawl, and Kozelek’s sparse interpretation does not even begin to do it justice.

By taking on a force far greater, not only does the album not come close to the shimmering, broken intensity of Modest Mouse, Tiny Cities also fails to showcase the limitless talent of Mark Kozelek. As Isaac Brock recedes into the distance, Kozelek’s own identity struggles to stand upright.

Archived article by Natasha Pickowicz
Sun Staff Writer