Sun Kil Moon

Tiny Cities

(Calo Verde; 2005)

By Dom Sinacola | 9 January 2008

Sometime in 2003, Mark Kozelek was introduced to Modest Mouse through a live set, and then time went further, seeing the release of Sun Kil Moon’s debut, which was like the Red House Painters with an extra string, and then there became this, a cover album by Kozelek, under Sun Kil Moon, of songs by Isaac Brock, who won’t go away. The origins of Tiny Cities are scant in detail, and that’s just fine: both Kozelek and Brock are stalwarts of their respective sounds and niches, the latter especially crowned in notice with Wolf Parade’s success; fans aren’t scratching for bios or personas here. We’re asking why? What are we getting out of this? Is Kozelek validating the Mouse’s indie influence? Is there a need for that anyway?

The answers, going backwards, are: No; Kinda but that probably wasn’t his goal; 11 “new” Sun Kil Moon tracks that are all pretty damn pleasant; we best understand through every 10 yr old’s favorite tool, the word-conserving Venn diagram (click for full-sized version):

As geometric logic dictates above, Kozelek and Brock come together over a shared affinity/influence/bloated genre for/in/of “Americana.” More than just attempting to vaguely characterize American music with country roots, the Americana Music Association states of its subject, “While the musical model can be traced back to the Elvis Presley marriage of hillbilly and R&B that birthed rock 'n' roll, Americana as a radio format developed during the 1990s as a reaction to the highly polished sound that defined the mainstream music of that decade.” …So, however you feel about Elvis and whether or not you think he’s a shimmying crook and whatever you make of “hillbilly” as a genre, Kozelek and Brock share fascinations—storytelling, twang, bent guitar notes, un-subtle string arrangements, the oily wastelands of the world, twisted country and teased folk—and can pretty much do what they please.

It pleases Mark Kozelek to strip down a fat timeline of Modest Mouse tracks to their barest essentials, slow them down to half the original tempo or more, and cut out most other chewy stuff. (Again) why? Because Isaac Brock is fantastic lyricist and his delivery, albeit unique, evocative, and fantastiblah blah blah, usually careens over his own words. The same went for AC/DC, and Kozelek’s already tackled a bunch of Bon Scott fare, but the “depth” that many people found in the Rock Dinosaur’s oldest songs, care of Kozelek’s What’s Next to the Moon (2001), was something of an artifact to unearth. Here, in a time when Modest Mouse has been discussed and revered to the moon, these covers just seem to crystallize a lot of themes we already knew.

Which doesn’t detract from how honey Mark sounds singing, “I hope Heaven and Hell are really there / I wouldn’t hold my breath / You wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death?” Sounds singing, “I’m going to Arizona / Sex on the rocks all warm and red, and we bled / And the writing in the stall said,/ ‘We write our maps in the stalls.’” Singing, “I’m shot to the moon / Been there a half an hour, I want to come home soon.”

“Space Travel is Boring” saps the urgency out of the original so that a terrifying ennui is calmed into a practiced longing. “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” where at one time Brock fucked the Horses of the Apocalypse like a manic Mad Max, is now an autumn dirge, getting fucked by the Horses of Soft Drink Jingles. The edge is gone, the roaring electric tint and drastic vocal dubbing is gone, but it all sounds nice, ya know? “Neverending Math Equation” winds Brock’s jibber into folk mystique, and the “neverending” chorus is both infuriating and neat; “Convenient Parking,” the album’s unassuming peak, carries over the Mouse’s pique without shrieking, with only a short rumble.

But then there’s “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child,” which, without the bells, whistles, jaunty cawing, and stop-start blasphemy, is plain boring. Same with “Grey Ice Water,” sunk by throwaway post-Ghosts of the Great Highway percussion, saved by female backing (like the original!) and actually speeding up Brock’s pace a tad. And! Oh, “Trucker’s Atlas,” how you’ve been gutted so mercilessly.

I like Modest Mouse a lot. I like Red House Painters and the only other Sun Kil Moon album a lot. Mostly, though, Tiny Cities is predictable—sounds like sounds like sounds like—and many of the songs lose their indelible glow being snail baited and cleared up like this. The new context is refreshing for some, logy for others. Really, three cheers to Kozelek for drilling into the Mouse’s roots (for “On How Modest Mouse Owes Built to Spill Big Time” see: Sad Sappy Sucker or: This Is a Long Drive For Someone With Nothing to Think About) and tapping an alienation they can both share.

Maybe you saw that already and don’t need Sun Kil Moon’s help. Kozelek struggles to make these songs his own, carefully and respectfully, discarding discography for a somber logic, trodding through every MM album, consciously aiming for lesser known pieces. High five for the effort, another for making it sound effortless; down low for pulling up America’s roots: Rewriting the standards of the oppressed and the alone.