This conversation is 95% unedited.
“Uh, so he’s covering that fuckin’ depressing Sondheim song? As if Send in the clowns needed to be more miserable…”
“Don’t knock it, it’s a great track.”
“He’s gone Rod Stewart on us! Is he singing or rapping like Abe Simpson on ketamines?”
“Singing. And I dunno, there’s more to covers than going full Rod Stewart…”
I put down my coffee mug and go back to the cubicle, leaving my cover-hating friend to simmer in his hate of “cover bands and their no-trick pony shenanigans.” The cover album. It’s not the first by Mark Kozelek and if you’ve followed his career, you know he’s always had a penchant for cover versions. With Red House Painters, he went Neil Young on Wings‘ ‘Silly Love Songs‘, made Blue Oyster Cult‘s ‘Don’t fear the reaper‘ a solemn trip and managed to rock out John Denver‘s beautiful ‘Fly Away’ into an instrumental monster. KISS, Yes, The Cars, Genesis, and Simon & Garfunkel also got some love in the Red House Painters Days.
With Sun Kil Moon, the trend didn’t stop. A full album of lovely Modest Mouse covers, tributes to Michael Jackson, Casiotone for the painfully alone and many more have appeared in Kozelek‘s recorded and live settings. 2008’s Finally featured Low, Stephen Sondheim, and Husker Du. 2013’s Like Rats went for Ted Nugent, Danzig and Sonny & Cher. His influences are varied and these covers function more as a “pay it forward” than a “man, I gotta make next year’s rent”.
So, Mark Kozelek Sings Favorites. The Caldo Verde release, now almost a month old, has made its way through think pieces and reviews. The guitar lays dusty in the corner of the room. The “slice of life” diatribes are piling inside various notebooks. This is piano and vocals territory and it works so well.
With all the anger from recent Kozelek songs like ‘Richard Ramirez died of natural causes’ and ‘With a sort of grace I walked to the bathroom to cry’, the soothing version of Mark Kozelek‘s vocals is a welcomed treat. However, as much as I love Kozelek‘s vocals, it’s Chris Connolly’s piano work what really seals the deal with this album. ‘Mainstreet’, a Bob Seger cover, is a brilliant piece where piano upstages vocals, and that’s quite the feat, since Kozelek conveys Seger‘s soulful croon perfectly.
Besides the absence of guitar -a nice change of pace- the other remarkable part is the choice of collaborators. Low‘s Mimi Parker lends her dulcimer vocals to ‘Amanda’, a slo-core friendly cover of Waylon Jennings. Mike Patton adds a subtle layer in David Bowie‘s ‘Win’, which is approached with enough respect to the dearly departed duke. Minnie Driver fills in for Nancy Sinatra‘s role in ‘Something Stupid’, making the bar-friendly classic a little classier. Think gin and tonic, replacing Beefeater with a nice Hendrick’s.
Covers get the sharp end of the stick most of the time. Cover artists get accused of being bland and playing it safe and although no single track in Mark Kozelek Sings Favorites reinvents a song in a way that, let’s say, Sun Kil Moon reinvented -while revering- Modest Mouse, you can feel the utmost love Mark Kozelek has for these songs. Show tunes, 70s staples and alternative music. It is Mark Kozelek‘s mixtape. He’s singing while driving and we’re riding shotgun.
Words: Sam J. Valdés López