Mark Kozelek's Tiny Cities

If you know the name Mark Kozelek, it’s probably from his tenure as frontman for the Red House Painters, one of the handful of bands responsible for the slowcore movement of the early 90s.

Along with other groups such as American Music Club and Low, they added a rebellious note to the vastly popular grunge movement that had gripped American youth. The combination of grunge’s introspective lyrics and the slowed-down, lush layers of England’s shoegazer music was an odd way to rebel against the mainstream, but worked to greater effect than many could have imagined at the time.

If you’re lucky, you also know Mark Kozelek from his solo work. Upon the dissolution of the Red House Painters, Mark struck out on his own, and in 2000 released Rock N' Roll Singer. Included on the disc were rather unexpected covers of three AC/DC songs. Even more unexpected was the release of What's Next to the Moon in 2001, an album which was nothing but AC/DC covers. A surprise move to be sure, but the surprise turned out to be that slowed-down, largely acoustic versions of Bon Scott-era AC/DC could not only work, but turn out beautifully.

In 2003, Mark formed another band proper (Sun Kil Moon) and released Ghosts of the Great Highway to great critical and commercial success. Its cohesive narrative structure and lush arrangements had many critics hailing it as the best work of his career. Sometime after the release of Ghosts, Kozelek made a surprising discovery – Modest Mouse. Kozelek had never been privy to America’s favorite indie rock band until he stumbled upon them by chance – he had gone to see the Shins, opening for Modest Mouse, and ended up staying for the main event. He was blown away by their music, and soon found himself playing Modest Mouse covers at his live shows, and recording the odd tune every now and then, until one day he had 11 songs on tape.

Such was born Tiny Cities – an improbable series of incredible covers. The very idea sounds like a horrible gimmick gone wrong, three seconds before it even starts (it’s widely recognized that Kidz Bop cornered the definitive Modest Mouse cover), but Kozelek knows what he’s doing, and he does it very well. His covers so boldly alter the originals that often all that is left to indicate they are not his originals are the lyrics, and even then, the startling transformations can cause one to not recognize even those.

The song from which the album’s title comes, “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” is a hallmark of this recreation. The retro disco bass line that opens the original song and runs throughout is perhaps one of the few recognizable sounds any Modest Mouse fan is likely to hear on this album. The Kozelek treatment strips the groove and bombast away, and instead opts for a slow, acoustic arrangement with flourishes of strings – an arrangement that still startles me each time I hear it.

It would be all too simple for an album such as this to turn out to be an unfortunate, one-trick pony; however, Kozelek proves once again that his knack for getting into the guts of a song and turning it inside out is far from a fluke. Songs like “Convenient Parking,” with its driving, blues-like temperament, and the impassioned “Ocean Breaths Salty” (turned from a rollicking strut to a hushed, desperate rumination) show that, rather than a desperate musician trying to profit from cheap one-offs, he is a consummate musician who sees in the songs he covers something more.

- Alex Duke