Red House Painters – Old Ramon (2001)

I’ve written about Mark Kozelek before, in my post about Sun Kil Moon‘s “Admiral Fell Promises” album, one of my favorite records of 2010. Red House Painters are his first band, formed in 1989 in San Francisco and arguably one of the most personal, intimate and warm musical instances of the nineties. The sad, yearning songs which make up Old Ramon, the last album Mark Kozelek released with Red House Painters, are some of the best and most memorable in his career and this record has been in my personal top for about six years now.

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Kozelek is a remarkably constant songwriter, possessing an instantly recognizable style, marked by a feeling of patience and attention to detail, both in matters of music and lyrics, able to zoom in on a tiny detail and paint it with stunning accuracy and universal appeal. His songs are usually slow, simple yet intricate, each one vibrating with a delicate, vintage vibe, like a painstakingly sculpted objet d’art. In all honesty, this album reminds me successively of many little meaningful gifts I gave to people I care about throughout the years – the music itself opens up these doors to memory, sweet and quaint as they may be, populating the room I’m in with the presence of so many faded romances and estranged friends it’s sometimes hard not to feel overwhelmed by regret and nostalgia while listening to Old Ramon. I don’t mean this music turns me into an old man; instead, it creates a field in which time seems somehow more dense, in which the myriad slices of yourself which have brought you to this very present suddenly begin to speak again, to assert themselves and lure you into an often-times much-needed conference with the past.

This type of enhanced perception of detail flows forward seamlessly from the hypnotic, sweetly repetitive patterns of this music and suddenly objects around you jingle the strands connecting them to your own biography, capture you in this soft web of memory and every image becomes palpable and immediate. The vintage cigarette holder I found for a dear friend in another city, the cheesy stack of moon photographs with the names of the craters and mountains printed on them in bright yellow, on the backs of which I shamelessly wrote fake memories of romantic strolls an ex girlfriend and I had supposedly taken in the weightless, breathless landscape, the image of my first guitar, black and bulky, leaning tiredly against a wooden wall in the garret of my home, these are things which come flooding in so vividly and candidly it’s simply amazing to think about the way such things can stay hidden in your mind for so long and so quietly, and how they shake off the dust and appear so resplendently once awakened by these soulful melodies. This is private, sensuous music, sincerely romantic, albeit a bit cheesy. But this pang of guilt at the enjoyment of such emotional music is merely an afterthought, an unfair reflex already far away by the time you get into the groove and let the stream of sound float you away.

Old Ramon, as all of Mark Kozelek’s music, is autobiographical, honest and direct, drawing in turn from the deep well of his personal experience and memory. The fact that the music manages to incite the same type of communication with the self is by no means a small feat. Many times songwriters exercise a way of saying without saying, of simultaneous confession and concealment, and while I’m sure Mark Kozelek isn’t immune to this very human reflex, this album, at least, feels to me like one of those rare and precious moments of understanding, of unmediated connection people can establish, sometimes by accident, other times by sheer patience and as a culmination of gathered experience and trust. “River”, for example, is in my opinion an unequaled display of beauty and an acutely sensitive musical iteration of the tension and expectation which I connect to flirtation and the instant when one falls in love. Dizzying, deceptively soft and surprisingly unrelenting, the song perfectly recalls that biological version of gravitational attraction which sometimes sparks between two people and is, I think, my favorite piece of Mark Kozoelek’s songwriting in all of his career.

I’ve said about as much as I can about this album, which as always tends to overwhelm me and leave my words obsolete. Enjoy, if the mood fits you. And if not, save it for a day in which it does. See you soon!

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