Much like the music of Sigur Rós, Antony and the Johnsons and the late Captain Beefheart, the first time hearing Red House Painters leaves the strongest impression as the band introduce something completely new to the lexicon of music that, while even Red House Painters has trouble replicating it, becomes irreplaceable itself.
Red House Painters’ first self-titled album is an astonishing mix of cold yet gentle atmospherics blended with heart wrenching vocals and lyrics drenched in ambiguity. This album does not simply ask to be listened to—it aches to be heard.
The unique Red House Painters experience begins with the album’s cover, a sepia toned photo of a defunct Coney Island rollercoaster that establishes the setting for front-man Mark Kozelek’s sonic ghost town (this effort is also known as Rollercoaster, to differentiate from the band’s second self-titled album, referred to as Bridge).
From album opener “Grace Cathedral Park,” through the epic “Katy Song” and sobering “New Jersey,” the songs of Red House Painters deal with moving on, being left behind and sorting through the gray areas of life as they happen.
Unfortunately labeled as “sadcore” (alongside the likes of American Music Club and Low), Red House Painters’ strength is often overlooked. Simply taking this band or album at face value of being depressing or downtrodden would be missing the catharsis offered here. This is an album of coping, understanding and dealing with life’s trials and tribulations. Which ones? Kozelek doesn’t exactly spell them out in words, but his unique voice conveys such emotion that the listeners never need to know to fully understand this artist’s journey.
The centerpiece of this album, and the Red House Painters’ entire career, is the aforementioned masterpiece “Katy Song.” To call it haunting would be unfair, yet its otherworldly nature couldn’t be called anything less than a visitation from a world that exists only in emotion. Building gently from a lilting melody, the song grows around Kozelek’s tender voice and the “barely-there-but-undeniably-violent” sound of the drums.
After establishing that “Katy” is leaving, the song’s entire second half finds Kozelek’s wordless voice wandering through the sea of sound, not quite lost, but aimless nonetheless. This extended coda does not give a feeling of indifference, but of true contemplation, a trait found throughout the album.
The more straightforward first half of the album is followed by deeper experimentation with arrangement and sound found in tracks like the chaotic “Funhouse” and the hypnotic “Mother,” which plays out as a normally structured song before it is literally reversed and the band returns, playing along with the backward track. The result, in both cases, finds the subtle band manipulating waves of feedback and noise, extending its reach as far beyond the comfortable terrain it planted its flag in early on.
For the most part, it works. In some cases, the ugly noise seems like a rebellion, a shield of some sort for Kozelek to hide behind, as if he may have regretted exposing too much. This back and forth only adds to the complexity of Red House Painters. The more the singer becomes exposed, the further he retreats only to return more revealed than he was before.
A perfect example of this union of give and take comes in the form of the two separate but distinct versions of the song “Mistress,” the first version with the full band and early on in the album. The second version of “Mistress” comes later and finds Kozelek alone with the piano and many layers of reverberation, giving his voice an ethereal tone. The artist gives the impression that while the story was already told, its further details could not be revealed until being alone with the listener.
While describing the Red House Painters, it is impossible to shift the focus away from Mark Kozelek himself. Acting for the first time as the band’s producer, Kozelek’s unique perspective allows the listener to experience Red House Painters’ misery and joy from a safe distance. His bravery is in sharing it with an audience. In an era of quickly rising (and falling) indie music figureheads, Kozelek quietly continues to create music on his own and with Sun Kil Moon, holding his place as a tried and established artist with a career spanning nearly 20 years.
While he hasn’t recaptured the magic of his mysterious introduction to the world, Red House Painters’ first proper album remains a corner stone of originality in the American independent music movement of the early 1990s.