Red House Painters

TrackAlbum
Medicine BottleDown Colorful Hill
Grace Cathedral ParkRed House Painters (Rollercoaster)
Katy SongRed House Painters (Rollercoaster)
MistressRed House Painters (Rollercoaster)
New JerseyRed House Painters (Bridge)
Summer DressOcean Beach
San GeronimoOcean Beach
DropOcean Beach
Have You ForgottenSongs For A Blue Guitar
RiverOld Ramon

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Contributor: David Tanner

In the early nineties somebody decided that a musical genre called “slowcore” was a thing. Bands like Low, American Music Club and Codeine were all lobbed together. The only common feature seemingly being that they were quieter and not as frantic as the prevailing “grunge” style. All of these bands rightly disowned such labelling as did another purported slowcore band, Red House Painters.

Red House Painters photo

Red House Painters (l to r): Anthony Koutsos (drums), Gorden Mack (guitar), Mark Kozelek (guitar, vocals), Jerry Vessel (bass)

Formed in San Francisco in 1989, Mark Kozelek was the main singer and songwriter. That’s the same Mark Kozelek who regularly gets into onstage arguments with fans, and recently had a well documented spat with The War On Drugs and ridiculed and insulted a Guardian journalist at a concert. He was more mellow in his youth.

In 1992, the band signed to Ivo Watts-Russell’s 4AD label on the strength of a demo tape; this cleaned up tape became the debut album Down Colorful Hill. The vocals are raw, the guitar playing is a bit hesitant, but this is a superb first album. Medicine Bottle tells a tale of obsessive love strung out over nine minutes.

And like a medicine bottle
In the cabinet I’ll keep you
And like a medicine bottle
In my hand I will hold you
And swallow you slowly
As to last me a lifetime

In 1993 they released two albums, both called Red House Painters, but now generally known by their album artwork as Rollercoaster and Bridge.

Rollercoaster is their generally acknowledged masterpiece, with the first five songs in particular a dazzling showcase of Kozelek’s song writing and arranging prowess.

“That was just a time that I’ll never forget, because I literally went from working front desk at the Chelsea Motor Inn to a week later, a record company in England wiring money to my bank account, saying ‘Make an album’. I felt a lot of pressure. I didn’t want to do things in sort of a tossed-off demo style like we’d done the other stuff. We finally had money. I wanted to experiment and do overdubs. We were just really going all-out.” Ben Gibbard talks to Mark Kozelek (2008)

Grace Cathedral Park starts the album with strummed acoustic guitars and a tale of falling in love with California and out of love with his lover: “We walked down the hill, I feel the coming on of the fading sun, And I know for sure that you’ll never be the one”.

Katy Song is another love song about a girlfriend who was to feature in many Red House Painter songs. “I know tomorrow you will be, somewhere in London, living with someone”.

“Katy was an ex-girlfriend of mine who passed away from cancer in 2003, six years after we broke up. She was only 34 years old. She fought for her life like nothing I have ever seen. She introduced me to San Francisco and Northern California. She inspired me during her life, and she continues to. Whenever I feel down, I think of what she would have given to live another year.” Mark Kozelek discusses five of his non-musical influences (2014)

Mistress is the last selection from this album and the production on this seems to hint at a Cocteau Twins influence with multi-layered effects-heavy guitars.

Released in autumn 1993, Bridge seems a little disappointing in comparison to what went before, even though the songs came from the same sessions as Rollercoaster. New Jersey is the standout track for me, with its strange martial beat and fuzz guitar. An EP, Shock Me, followed containing two versions of the Kiss classic, sung in downbeat RHP style.

The next full length release was 1995’s Ocean Beach, their last record for 4AD. This was a softer sound than before, with acoustic guitars to the fore. Summer Dress is a beautiful cello backed ballad: “… says a prayer as she’s kissed, by ocean mist”.

San Geronimo is back in electric guitar drone territory with both songs relating to his girlfriend Katy. However, for me, the track I always return to is Drop, a long slow piano driven ballad:

All the love in an instant
Makes my life stop
But then my hate for you
Makes my feelings altogether drop

And this is where RHP as a band starts to unravel; for a variety of, contested, reasons 4AD refuse to release the next album, Songs For A Blue Guitar. Maybe it was the lengthy guitar solos in two of the songs, especially in the cover of Wings’ Silly Love Songs. Maybe because 4AD’s American distributers, Warner Bros, didn’t think it was a true RHP record. Whatever the reasons, in the end the album was released in 1996 by a small label owned by film director John Hughes and distributed via Island records. The record also features a cover of a Yes track, Long Distance Runaround, a Kozelek favourite. The lead track, Have You Forgotten, is a beauty, with acoustic guitar and lovely pedal steel. However, a live version exists with string quartet and is for me the definitive version and worth seeking out (see clip in links below).

A series of record label mergers then conspired against the band and their next and final album, Old Ramon, though recorded in 1998 was not released until 2001, when Kozelek managed to buy back the album from Island Records, and Sub Pop signed the group.

It’s a much stronger set than the previous album and its mix of ballads and heavier numbers set the stage for Kozelek’s next band. River snakes and shimmers through over eleven minutes of fuzzy guitar and world weary lyrics. Red House Painters, though, broke up, but in 2002 Mark Kozelek formed a new band, Sun Kil Moon, with two of his former RHP bandmates, though that’s a story to be told in another Toppermost.

 

Mark Kozelek official website

Sun Kil Moon official website

Red House Painters on 4AD

Red House Painters live at Alligator Lounge, Santa Monica, full set (1995)

Mark Kozelek plays Katy Song live on BBC Radio 6

Mark Kozelek performs Have You Forgotten live on the Great American Music Hall bootleg (2004)

Red House Painters biography (iTunes)

David Tanner hails originally from South Wales and spent 40 years working as a librarian – the last 30 in Yorkshire – and is now happily retired in France. There are not many music genres he doesn’t like and he’s never stopped seeking out good music. Always another unknown band around the corner! He writes about music and random culture at Other Formats Are Available.

TopperPost #504

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