Ah, the tribute album. Is there another form of art that can inspire such simultaneous hope and dread? Think back to the recent eclectic remake of Rubber Soul. At first, the lineup of artists involved looked mighty fine. But it turned out to be just another hit-and-miss affair. Low and Ted Leo managed interesting variations on the numbers they chose to remodel, but the Donnas and Ben Kweller simply phoned in karaoke-worthy retreads. Worst of all, the Fiery Furnaces and Sufjan Stevens, two of indiedom's most prized possessions, absolutely slaughtered the songs they covered.
Maybe nostalgia is meant to be maudlin. Maybe a remedy to this is having one current, relevant artist tackle the songs of another. Enter Mark Kozelek, long-time Red House Painters leader whose new band, Sun Kil Moon, doesn't stray far off the former's lilting Americana road. Recently turned on to Modest Mouse, Kozelek decided to take on an album's worth of that rambling, singular-sounded band's material. One generation's under-respected rock singer should do the next generation's a boatload of good, right?
Wrong, interestingly enough. Turns out Isaac Brock is just too damn weird to be imitable. After a promising, slow, shambling start with "Exit Does Not Exist," Tiny Cities sinks immediately to its name-taking nadir, "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes." The original was an amazingly off-kilter track from Modest Mouse's The Moon and Antarctica, with its bouncy bass line and intimidating lyrics. But here it's made mush. It's all wrong strings and Kozelek's falsetto singing. The effect is similar to Halloween remade by Sesame Street characters.
Brock and company can temper their almost emo angst with pretty pieces, so the already understated "Dramamine" and "Grey Ice Water" work well in Sun Kil Moon's un-heavy hands. But "Jesus Christ was an Only Child" and "Trucker's Atlas," while nowhere near as well-known, are almost like the Beatles' "A Day in the Life"; there isn't a band in the world that can properly do justice to remaking these songs, so why even try? And "Ocean Breathes Salty," a Modest Mouse track that did see recent major radio airplay, seems plucked here by Kozelek in a desperate attempt to piggyback off a younger band's newfound popularity.
Kozelek has a career's worth of his own amazing originals: "Summer Dress," "Drop," "Wop-a-Din-Din," "Cruiser," "Glenn Tipton." Listen to those instead, and don't bother yourself with the question of why one path blazer, advancing in years, tried to fall back and rely on another.
Prefix review: Sun Kil Moon [Ghosts of the Great Highway] by Brad Angle
Caldo Verge Records Web site