In 2001 Mark Kozelek released an entire album of AC/DC covers under his own name entitled What’s Next To The Moon. For fans of Red House Painters, the album was something of an expected revelation. Kozelek tore the songs down to their very basic core and then built them back up in his own inimitable style.
It is now 2005, and Kozelek has done the same to a cross-section of tracks from once indie darlings, now international superstars Modest Mouse. The first question is: why? Apparently Kozelek came across the Mouse’s music in 2003 and became enamored with lead singer Isaac Brock’s lyrics. He started covering some of the songs live and then decided to do a whole album. Rumor has it the only reason this record was released under the Sun Kil Moon name is for market identification – the first Sun Kil Moon record sold very well. However, this album is all Kozelek.
Full disclosure: I am and have been a huge fan of both Modest Mouse and Kozelek/Red House Painters since mid-high school and still adore these musicians. As much as this ought to raise my excitement for this record even more, it actually filled me with dread. It just didn’t make sense. Brock’s rapid-fire vocal delivery is key to the Mouse sound, and I was worried that the “attitude” of his songs wouldn’t fit with Kozelek’s mellow, heartbreaking style. How wrong I was.
Tiny Cities is a triumph, whether you’re a fan of Kozelek or Modest Mouse, or just a fan of music in general. Kozelek owns every song, and the album flows perfectly. My personal favorite is “Space Travel Is Boring” a very short song when it appeared as the closer to Modest Mouse’s debut This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About (still my favorite album of theirs), but Kozelek stretches it into a nearly-four-minute “epic” that is absolutely gorgeous and heartbreaking.
Tiny Cities isn’t a tossed-off cash-in album of covers – it is a cohesive Mark Kozelek record where he just happens to be singing someone else’s lyrics. I have read a few disgruntled Modest Mouse fans who think the whole thing amounts to blasphemy and is a betrayal of the trademark Modest Mouse sound. For me, Kozelek’s approach is reminiscent of another time in rock music, when covers were the standard fare for many musicians and original tunes were the exception. Nico’s Chelsea Girl is arguably her definitive album, yet it contains exactly zero original Nico compositions. Yet no one would claim that she doesn’t make the songs her own. Oftentime, a cover version becomes more definitive than the songwriter’s original. (Just ask Bob Dylan.)
The truth is I just can’t stop listening to Tiny Cities. It is a gorgeous and all too brief treatise on what happens when two very unique talents (Kozelek’s playing, arranging, and singing and Brock’s lyrics) meet and something beautiful happens. Neither a novelty nor a misguided but ambitious experiment, Tiny Cities stands on its own as one of the best “indie” albums so far this year.