The Red House Painters took their name from a Tennessee painting crew named The International League Of Revolutionary House Painters. Leader Mark Kozelek came from Ohio, but formed the band in San Francisco. Kozelek was joined by drummer Anthony Koutsos, bassist Jerry Vessel, and guitarist Gorden Mack – Mack left the band halfway through their tenure and was replaced by Phil Carney.
The band were signed to 4AD records, a perfect fit for their moody folk-rock. Their early records are categorised as slowcore, but as their career progressed their albums became less gloomy. The band ran into label troubles – their final album, Old Ramon, was recorded in 1998 but not released until 2001. By that time, Kozelek had formed Sun Kil Moon – along with Kozelek, Koutsos was a member of both bands, and they effectively carry on where late-period Red House Painters left off.
Mark Kozelek has been extremely prolific, and he’s written a lot of great songs. At the same time, his albums can be a tough proposition; he often stretches songs to long running times. Sometimes this works, like the 13 minute ‘Mother’ from Rollercoaster, and sometimes it doesn’t, like the 11 minute cover of ‘Silly Love Songs’ on Songs For A Blue Guitar.
Kozelek’s career is often deferential to classic rock; he can unleash some grungy guitar that recalls Neil Young, while the Red House Painters have covered songs by Kiss, Yes, and The Cars.
Red House Painters Albums: Ranked from Worst to Best
Red House Painters (Bridge)
The Red House Painters’ third album consists of outtakes from their previous record, 1993’s Red House Painters (Rollercoaster). Some of the eight songs sound like outtakes, but there’s still some strong material. The electric version of ‘New Jersey’ is an improvement of the Rollercoaster take, and their moody take on Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘I Am A Rock’ works. Best of all is the moody ‘Uncle Joe’, which wittily incorporates the band’s name into the bridge.
I am not very well read
And did you say that I will lose my house
And can you spare me of my pain
And can you spare me of my tears
The Red House Painters’ final album was recorded in 1998, but wasn’t released until 2001; in the meantime the band had broken up, and Kozelek had released an album of acoustic AC/DC interpretations. Old Ramon sounds much closer to subsequent Sun Kil Moon releases than it does to the Red House Painters slow-core. It suffers from a seventy minute running time, and songs like ‘Cruiser’ and ‘Void’ outstay their welcome. There are terrific, hard-edged riffs on ‘Between Days’ and ‘Byrd Joel’, and ‘River’ is a contender for Kozelek’s best song.
Down Colorful Hill
Red House Painters’ six song, forty minute debut is made up of demos, although they were subsequently drenched with reverb in the studio. It’s beloved in some quarters, but it’s inconsistent – the title track drones for ten minutes, and ‘Lord Kill the Pain’ feels immature compared to the group’s subsequent work. The rest is strong though; Kozelek’s songwriting is evocative on ’24’ and ‘Japanese To English’. The centerpiece is the harrowing ‘Medicine Bottle’, the finest expression of Kozelek’s youthful angst.
Songs for a Blue Guitar
The early Red House Painters albums are tortured and oppressive; in comparison Songs for a Blue Guitar is a ray of sunshine. Opener ‘Have You Forgotten’ opens with a warm acoustic strum and the chorus “have you forgotten to love yourself?” There’s a clear debt to 1970s rock; the amazing ‘Make Like Paper’ recalls Neil Young’s guitar epics with Crazy Horse, while their are reimagined covers of Yes’ ‘Long Distance Runaround’ and The Cars’ ‘All Mixed Up’. Originals like ‘Priest Alley Song’ and ‘Revelation Big Sur’ are also excellent, although the 11 minute cover of ‘Silly Love Songs’ is a career low point.
The Red House Painters’ fourth album was their final record for 4AD and their last to feature original guitarist Gorden Mack. Ocean Beach feels like the overcast day pictured on the cover, but with the sun peeking through. There aren’t any of the lengthy drones of the earlier records, instead focusing on pretty folk-rock. ‘Summer Dress’, with its elegant cello part, sounds more radio-friendly than anything else in the band’s catalogue. There’s gorgeous piano on ‘Shadows’ and ‘Drop’, and ‘San Geronimo’ mixes youthful nostalgia with a sludgy Crazy Horse riff.
Red House Painters (Rollercoaster)
Down Colorful Hill was essentially demos, so the ambitious double album Red House Painters marked Kozelek’s first studio experience. In his book, Nights of Passed Over, Kozelek said “what I remembered most, even when I look at the album’s cover, is nine months of worry”, but Rollercoaster houses a batch of Kozelek’s strongest songs. The pretty folk in the opening pair of ‘Grace Cathedral Park’ and ‘Down Through’, the heartbreak of ‘Katy Song’, the two different versions of ‘Mistress’, the angsty verse and singalong chorus of ‘Strawberry Hill’ are all standouts.
Here’s a Red House Painters playlist. For some reason Songs For A Blue Guitar isn’t on Spotify, so check out ‘Make Like Paper’ on Youtube for the 10th track.
Are you a fan of the Red House Painters? Do you have a favourite album?