I’ve always been bit put off of folksingers. Let me qualify that: I’ve always been suspicious of their straight-faced earnestness. I’ve alway preferred folk music with some edge, both lyrical and musical, with room to manoeuvre around, or even undermine, folk’s coffeehouse realism. I always found the Red House Painters to fit the bill. Songs for a Blue Guitar and Ocean Beach were affecting records, managing to balance rockist impulses with trad folk-isms. Their rock-pop classicism, evidenced through their eclectic choice of cover songs (Yes, Kiss, The Cars), made their music even more appealing, where blissful pastoral smoothness blended easily with insistent urban crunch.
Not giving up on his well-worn metier, Mark Kozelek’s first proper solo album, Rock ‘N’ Roll Singer, contains the requisite number of cover tunes. With four of seven songs being covers, maybe that’s one or two too many this time (I only have a sampler, so can’t speak to the album proper), but Kozelek manages to refashion and personalize them in such a way that they fit snugly into the rest of the album. John Denver’s “Around and Around” and three AC/DC songs (the title track, “Bad Boy Boogie,” “You Ain’t Got a Hold on Me”) get folked-up here. Kozelek succeeds by glossing each cover with a melancholy sheen, positioning quiet moments alongside points where he soars off to newer heights (or at least as high as his voice lets him). He relies on his alchemical ability to transform the songs’ previous pop/rock life into something infinitely more personal. Straight-up rock songs more at home in stadiums are refitted to suit an intimate setting, often taking on a barely recognizable form. The result is not always gold, but it certainly adds another layer of meaning and emotional charge to moribund or long-forgotten rock songs.
It’s not all covers, though. The originals become part of the intricate fabric and spirit of the record. Expanding his tendency to inhabit older, half-forgotten rock songs, Kozelek takes on the point of view of a friend’s grandmother in “Ruth Marie.” It’s a fitting tribute, a thoughtful reminisce of a vital lifeforce struggling against a waning physical strength and the indignities of life in an old-age home.
Unlike the Red House Painters, there are fewer extended jams on this album, with more straight-ahead three-piece arrangements allowing Kozelek to splay open the songs. There’s a sparseness that’s quite revealing, a desire to explore, through clever reconstruction, a song’s other possible meanings. There’s still the intricate guitar work that’s been part of Kozelek’s hallmark sound since the first Painters LP, although here it’s more restrained. And although musical ornamentation has been kept to a minimum, there’s an artisanal and craftsman-like attention to detail, with an eye trained for buried subtlety. A pleasing teaser for the upcoming Red House Painters album.