Legends: Red House Painters – Down Colorful Hill

Childhood, or rather adolescence, is something we have all experienced: the bad haircuts, the self-consciousness, the desperate need for independence; the feeling you get in the dark corners of your heart when you think of your neighbor who didn’t kiss you back, the sweaty, sticky summers spent in the backyards of friends and relatives, and of course your brisk slide into shouting matches with your parents. Mark Kozelek, perhaps more so than any other artist of the 90s, knew how to channel this broad palette of emotions. He did so in meticulously detailed and infinitely relatable dairy entries that he presented as songs and Down Colorful Hill, the first album from his band Red House Painters, is a masterpiece of this kind of heart-sleeved “sadcore”.

The shortest of RHP’s catalog, Down Colorful Hill begins with “24”, where Kozelek within a minute and a half claims that we’re “not kids on swingsets.” He doesn’t waste time. The slow, deliberate, and melancholic bass, drums, and thinly plucked guitar inch along with Kozelek’s paced drawl. 24 manifests itself to Kozelek, “breathing in [his] face” and “pounding at [his] door”. It’s approach is one that is unwanted and aggressive, and “oldness”, as Kozelek says, “comes with a smile/To every love-given child.” In under 3 minutes, “24” has developed into a slow-stomping, ornate, and beautifully-detailed statement that defines the album: mortality, age, and adulthood are inevitable.

Which isn’t to say youth is cherished; this is a fully-detailed world in which childhood and teenage years are spent wallowing in failure, angst, and anger. It’s only until “Micheal”, easily the album’s most sentimental moment, that childhood is looked upon fondly; days spent with a best friend that are now long gone. Kozelek speaks a universal language where Micheal isn’t just a lost friend, he’s a lost era. The poorly-pierced nose, the shirtless summertime, everything he recalls is now gone, and his search for Micheal is never finished. Instead of pursuing a narrative with a conclusion, the song ends with Kozelek singing out for his “best friend.”

It’s tough to talk about this album because it’s an album that can only be enjoyed by listening to it. Every line is so combed over and perfectly-articulated; Kozelek inserts details that add so much with so little. For instance, when referring to Micheal’s girlfriend, it’s not just his girlfriend, it’s his “triple ex-girlfriend”, adding to the image of the “oldest juvenile delinquent bum” by detailing a turbulent relationship with only two words. In “Medicine Bottle”, he turns his lover into a medicine bottle, saying that he will “swallow [her] slowly/as to last [him] a lifetime.” The image is so vivid in it’s desperation that’s it’s nearly perverse.

Japan and it’s culture loom over the album much in the same way it loomed over Pinkerton, which serves as a perfect sexual foil to the more romantic visions of Down Colorful Hill. Kozelek looks to Japan in the same way may teenagers might; a place that isn’t home, a place with no one he knows, an exotic island of strange, new customs, and a beautiful language that is completely foreign to almost everyone around him. Kozelek even wishes for “the burning down of [his] hometown” in “Lord Kill the Pain”, where his adolescent temper reaches a violent peek, wishing death upon his own best friend and girlfriend and wanting only to go to sleep and wake in Japan.

All along these six songs, the Red House Painters themselves articulate Kozelek’s visions in sparse yet richly-detailed arrangments. The title track is an exercise in slow repetition, the snare drum marching the song along slowly “down colorful hill”. Vocal hooks, like the ones in “Medicine Bottle” and “Japanese to English” are given much more life with a plodding bassline and electric/acoustic guitar parts that seem to weave around each other. On “Medicine Bottle”, you hear a low, humming static throughout the song, undercutting the romanticism of the lyrics to make the song sound much more desperate as a result.

Down Colorful Hill is overlooked by many now, with Red House Painters never reaching the mystic levels of notoriety or the cult status of similar bands like American Music Club or Carrissa’s Weird, but it shouldn’t be. The album isn’t just sad to be sad, it feels complete and vivid. Kozelek is able to channel so many different kinds of feelings and emotions and do so brilliantly: the nostalgic swings of “Micheal”, the angst-driven naivety of “Lord Kill the Pain”, the sexual animosity of “Medicine Bottle”. Kozelek allows himself to become these people, all probably him at one time or another, and really inhabits the world he plots out. Like Jeff Mangum would do years later with Nuetral Milk Hotel, Kozelek and the Red House Painters gave childhood nostalgia a thick, malicious, and perverse fog that is still palatable almost twenty years later.

1 Comment

  1. 02/03/11: Happy New Year! « Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks said,

    […] Legends: Red House Painters – Down Colorful Hill by Trevor Johnson LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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