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Across four albums, Red House Painters have offered confused, despondent, tender love songs that seem less creations of music than excavations of the soul. A kind of gray, rainy day alternative folk; soundtracks to uninvited solitude between cold, stupid bedsheets. To watch them perform, while indignantly immured in a crowd, hovels away from the sacred gloomy-wombiness of the old bedroom, is a bittersweet and some-what discomfiting experience.
Alone on the stage at Mama Kin's Music Hall, lead singer and songwriter Mark Kozelek opened the performance with a stirring, acoustic cover of the uplifting Christmas song "Little Drummer Boy." Characteristically, though, he slowed its traditionally buoyant tempo to a wistful drawl, and altered the inflection of his voice so as to awaken the song's theme from idyllic celebration into a brewing confusion, questioning, and loss. What does Christ's ready-made love actually mean? And what's to be done now with these damned drums?
Kozelek and Co. delivered a poignant two-hour, 11-song set that no individual album of theirs, nor any combination thereof, could equal in execution, creativity, or emotional dynamism. Patiently sinking from languor into chaos, from clean, spring notes to cyclones of distortion and pounding drums, the band revised and reinterpreted each song that they played, including a muscular Cowboy Junkies cover and an ad-libbed "White Christmas." Most notable were their plugged, spine-tingling rendition of "Evil," the freshly-penned and exuberant "New Song About a New Girl," and their closing ditty, the ever-arrogant and melancholy "Mistress" (sans piano version). Despite requests to hear more recent stuff, the band mostly kept to material from their first two albums, 1992's Down Colorful Hill and 1993's eponymous double CD.
Throughout their long performance, however, Kozelek kept interacting with the small audience, entertaining suggestions, complaining, joking, congenially taunting. Occasionally jibes were aimed at the undercover Island executives who were supposedly there to research the newly-signed band, which was castaway from the highly-touted 4AD label after their first three records.
Ironically, experiencing Red House Painters in concert brings forth a similar, lurking cynicism; we find ourselves displaced from our idyllic, bedroom shanties and suddenly somewhat ashamed that we had ever allowed ourselves to be seduced by Kozelek's silver tongue. What was once treasured, inebriating music became imbamboozlably sobering and trite, simply by the fact that the room wasn't dark enough to hide the nearest person from collapsing the walls of our heretofore self-fulfilling fantasy. This was the bitterness part: growing-up.
No matter how intensely the bitterness for civilization's trespass conflicted with the sweetness of Kozelek's and Red House Painters' presence on Sunday night, nothing plagued the performance more than the choice of venue. With its blatant hybridization of Roman Mythology and medieval macabre, complete with apsidal carvings on the wooden booths, gruesome charcoal drawings of pregnant women ohne Bustenhalter, and hanging skeletons, Aerosmith's nascent Mama Kin club screams, drools, and bleeds for perverse, unrestrained if highly orchestrated debaucheries, preferably of Homo sapiens. Two domineering, heavily-stocked bars squat facing each other across the red-rimmed, black linoleum dance floor; smug, wood-carved janissaries. The room takes cares to invoke the popular equation "Lust + Delusion = a reckless, carnal kind of vermilion violence, real good stuff."
But Red House Painters' songs are not about wild abandon, but abandonment; not about outward violence, or violence turned inward upon the self, but a kind of protective numbing of the emotional self following some interminable psychological chaos--a kind of writer's block, a lover's block. Bashfully and impulsively, their songs attempt to define themselves, to heal their centers, achieve form, succeed, each reaching out delicate as snail antennae hoping to rebut the past. Admittedly, as Kozelek acknowledged, his songs sometimes come off "whiny and pretentious" but most of the time meaningful, as when in "Uncle Joe" the narrator pleads, I'm looking at the ceiling with an awful feeling of loss / and loneliness. / The after late-night television pain I'm / running out of strength.
Arriving uneven, never healed, gasping and yet certainly undanceable, unjumpable, and unslamable, the songs tend to root audience members, who are used to being able to recline in their sweet darkness (or their lover's sweet arms!), to a double-footed position on the floor, nearly impassive, as if unwittingly having looked upon a semi-hand-some, but helplessly stray, masculine Medusa. Sadness' vicar.
Hence, seven songs into the Red House Painters' set, and with the apparently virile contingent beginning to become intolerably restless, a kid blurted out, "Would you play, 'Make Like Paper,' or at least something that rocks?'" Not missing a beat, Kozelek responded, "Who the Hell did you think you were coming to see?" But this misunderstanding, or missed expectation, epitomizes the contradiction that existed between the venue and the band on Sunday night, and also the reason why it became more awkward and discomfiting to experience Red House Painters live, in spite of their bravura performances, than in the cold comforts of a twin (a TWIN!? for God's sake) bed with a shamefully broad amount of space in it.
Lead singer Mark Kozelek is a semihandsome, but hlplessly stray; masculine Medusa. Sadness' vicar.
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