The year 1998 was not very good for Mark Kozolek and his band The Red House Painters. Following critical acclaim for albums like Down Colorful Hill and Songs for a Blue Guitar, the San Francisco quartet seemed on the edge of a big break with a newly recorded album waiting to be released. However, as luck would have it, during the huge consolidation of the record industry that occurred that year — a consolidation that saw the creation of what now amounts to one mega-label/distributorship — the band was dropped and that album ended up in the vault seemingly for good.
The Painters broke up, but Kozolek nonetheless kept himself busy in the time between then and now, releasing a couple of — again — critically acclaimed solo albums (including a splendid collection of AC/DC interpretations) and landing a guest spot as Stillwater bass player Larry Fellows in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. Having bought the rights to that lost album, Kozolek finally gets to see his gestating child come to life after three years of waiting patiently, on indie stalwart Sub Pop.
Old Ramon presents a stripped-down Painters playing sparse yet satiating tunes behind Kozolek’s morose stifled voice. Kozolek has many things on his mind, small things — the reading of simple gestures, the semantics of phrasing between fighting lovers — that only find some semblance of expression through Kozolek’s weaving-between-the-lines poetics.
Taken as a whole, Old Ramon is a brilliant mopey stroll through San Francisco’s slate gray streets. “Wop-A-Din-Din” is an impeccable opener; a slinky dulcet sad tale about “so much love I wanna find”. Brooding and thought-provoking, Kozolek crosses Market Street for a trip to the Museum of Modern Art to paint modernist landscapes like “Void” that would make Diebenkorn blush. Upon leaving, he unconsciously treks thru the Metreon, oblivious to the yuppies and barking robot dogs; consumed in thought he is numb to what would otherwise be sensory overload in consumer hell. Re-crossing Market, heading up Van Ness, following it through the ghetto and turning left by the wharf he heads West to the ocean, musing about the Pacific Rim and Japanese expatriates on “Cruiser”, a track that is forceful only through its methodical almost languid carving. Kozolek remains on Ocean Beach for the latter half of Old Ramon, skipping beautiful stones — the 10 beautiful tracks on this album — into oblivion. Released now, amidst nu-metal squalor all over the radio dial, Old Ramon sounds contemporary and fresh, a welcome relief to the overstated hyper-macho sound we’re all confronted with all too often these days. Some adages are true; good things do come to those who wait and Old Ramon and Mark Kozolek’s time to shine has come.