Monday, August 9, 2010

Sun Kil Moon: Admiral Fell Promises [2010]

While it's long been a custom for performers to take stage names, trading names like Robert Zimmerman or Anna Mae Bullock for more mainstream-sounding monikers like Bob Dylan or Tina Turner still seems an attempt to create a memorable persona that still remains an actual person. At some point (and I really have no idea when, the late 80s maybe?) singer-songwriters began to use band names. Loner murk-smiths like Sterling Smith recorded as Jandek, Lou Barlow hid as Sebadoh (and Sentridoh), Will Oldham became Palace, Palace Music, and countless others, and Dan Bejar declared himself Destroyer. Singer-songwriters have never been hard to find, and so these name games do help differentiate their product. Occasionally, band nomenclature gets dropped, with Smog finally morphing into the more prosaic-sounding and real-life Bill Callahan. Half marketing, half conceptual game, artist naming remains important, as it determines how long you have to twiddle your iPod rolodex to get to the good stuff.

I am honestly a bit confused about the newest record from Mark Kozelek, an artist who began recording in 1992 with a band called Red House Painters. They broke up in the late 90s, and Kozelek then released a couple records under his own name before getting some of his former bandmates together under a new banner, Sun Kil Moon. He has since released numerous live albums (usually solo), several wild and controversial covers albums (reinventing AC/DC and Modest Mouse as acoustic folk), as well as a couple more Sun Kil Moon albums (usually with a band). The newest record, Admiral Fell Promises, breaks his habit of releasing solo work under his own name—this album is entirely solo acoustic, all on nylon-stringed guitar. Ultimately, I guess it doesn't matter whose name is on the sleeve, and anyone who has followed his career can attest that the man rarely strays far from what he does best, which is hushed, plaintive acoustic folk. The fact that virtually every album he has put out has featured as its cover art a monochromatic (usually sepia-tone) photograph, typically a room or a window or other abstract space, reminds his listeners that they are getting what they paying for: a dreamy, hazy hour of sparkling guitars and Weltschmertz. In terms of making cover art a reflection of the aural contents, only Jandek matches Kozelek (although sound-wise, Jandek is an anti-Kozelek, from another universe where ugly is beautiful).

This is not Kozelek's best album. I prefer his band work; 2003's epic Ghosts of the Great Highway is the best album he'll ever write, a well-rounded song cycle with elegiac tales about doomed boxers and barn-burning Crazy Horse guitar workouts. It remains my most-listened-to album of the entire 2000s. I hope that Kozelek plugs in again, but in the meantime, Admiral Fell Promises is a very sold effort, with the guitar work a joy, as usual. And taking a look at the cover, another sepia daydream, at the very least you know what you're in for.

Note: Orders directly from Kozelek's label, Caldo Verde, receive a four-song EP featuring more wild covers, this time Stereolab and The Jackson Five (!).

From Admiral Fell Promises, here's "Third And Seneca":

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