Tuesday, June 30, 2009

While I Was Away: Sun Kil Moon

Somewhere in the last six months, the Pandora delivered a wonderful nugget via my acoustic station when the soft vocals of Mark Kozelek caught my attention. The song was "Carry Me Ohio" off Ghosts of the Great Highway by Kozelek's current project known as Sun Kil Moon. (I will say right off that I have none of his previous work with Red House Painters, but will be looking into it.) So I picked up Ghosts which was released in 2003 and subsequently have picked up the more recent release, April from 2008.

This is one of those bands who I found through listening and then listened to a lot before I really read anything about them other than some background info, so it was interesting to then head over to the big board and read various reviews that reflected much of what I heard (well the positive reviews, of which there are many for these two albums.) Still I find it hard to describe the music.

Let's start with the obvious. It is slow. I mean all of it. Even when the band plugs in a few more instruments, the tempo is still slow. This is certainly not to say uninteresting, just slow. The music is primarily Kozelek, which is to say guitar and vocal oriented, with guitar often layered on other guitar. Most of it is acoustic, but some of the nicest tracks involve a wall of low volume distorted electric chords running throughout. Within that context, Ghosts is more varied musically with a bit (I mean a bit) more rock to it.

The lyrics all have the feeling of haunting memories--although it is more poetry than story telling (with some exception). Ghosts has a much more historical feel while April seems more personal more often. Kozelek's vocals are smooth, embedded and almost lost in the tunes, but like the music as a whole, they invite you in to stay for a while and dwell with them.

Now this is certainly not for everyone. I think you have to start with a certain appreciation for a kind of alt-country sound that is a bit more stylized and then you have to be willing to hang with songs (Kozelek seems pretty set on only writing songs closer to seven minutes in length than three). Most are subtle variations on a theme rather than songs with radically different parts as Kozelek seems to want to work thourgh an idea or feeling, as well as certain musical phrases, in multiple ways before leaving them.

That said, I have found myself pretty entranced by the music. I think Ghosts is solid from start to finish with a wonderful mix of songs. April suffers from length a bit. It clocks in at about 73 minutes which is just too long for me (still a child of the 50 minute album ya know) and I could find a couple songs to drop (although there are only ten--again my point about longer songs). Still I keep coming back, finding a different song or sound or lyric catching me each time.
A nice aside about April is that there are four alt takes, but SKM has packaged them neatly on a separate disc for your consideration.

Okay, that is enough of an attempt at explanation. Let me give you a couple samples to see what you think. First from Ghosts, I am going to start with "Carry Me Ohio" since that is where I started. That is followed by "Pancho Villa" which is an acoustic version of "Salvador Sanchez" (which is the most amped up tune on the album and on my first listen seemed out of place, but I now love) which I think captures a key Kozelek sound. And then, moving on to April, I am just going with one tune (since the three together will require a bit of your time already). "The Light" is the second tune on the disc and will give you a sense of Kozelek's use of electric guitar which often sounds very Neil Young like.

Here is hoping you enjoy as much as I have.

Ghosts of the Great Highway (Buy Album)

Carry Me Ohio
Pancho Villa

April (Buy Album)

The Light

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