Imagine what it was like for 4AD chief Ivo Watts-Russell the first time he listened to the Red House Painters' demo tapes. Demos, by nature, are rudimentary things, often suggesting promise but rarely realising it. Most demos are excruciatingly bad - the kind of unlistenable things you play for bemused friends so they, too, can wonder why the potential musician ever bothered in the first place. Red House Painters were luckier. The elusive chemistry was there from the first note.
Singer Mark Kozelek wrote songs that defied conventional structure. His lyrics were poetic and plainspoken. He wrote about what he knew. The band played along. Drummer Anthony Koutsos ignored the standard time-keeper temptation to speed things up. He understood the value of playing against such instincts. Bassist Jerry Vessel locked into place, sustaining notes until the setting was nearly ambient. Guitarist Gorden Mack added subtle flourishes, tonal colorings that aided the songsâ€š sombre hues. Anyone who persevered, who accepted the fact that these songs took time, was amply rewarded. Ivo sensed this and after minimal remixing, 4AD released six songs as Down Colorful Hill, the first Red House Painters album in August 1992. It remains one of the label's strongest releases.
Mark Kozelek was a different person back then. In his early twenties, he saw the world in tragic, even melodramatic, terms. He and a girlfriend parted ways and the nine minutes and fifty-one seconds of â€˜Medicine Bottleâ€™ followed. The obsessive-compulsive need to work through the details, to relive the experience, to make it seem less dead, made the song an epic. There was no standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure that could hold such sentiments. Instead, Kozelek unfolded the songs at their own pace. There's no denying the power of such emotional catharsis. All Red House Painters songs have the urgency of someone who believes.
With the 4AD contract signed and the album released, the band began receiving positive notices in the British music papers. Legitimate comparisons to Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison were made. Ironically, Kozelek had grown up in America's heartland on mostly classic rock. He liked Cat Stevens' acoustic lullabies and Neil Young's mix of ballads and rockers. These cult acts were beyond his scope. Interviews were also uncomfortable. Journalists probed like psychoanalysts and Kozelek answered honestly. He didn't feel comfortable on stage and didn't like doing interviews. The few shows the band did pull off were nerve-wracking, with Kozelek often closing his eyes to steady himself through the show.
Happily, the band retreated into the studio to record. With 4AD footing the bill, they could finally lay down the backlog of songs Kozelek had stored up. The results were so prodigious they had to be released as two separate albums. Identified by their covers as the Rollercoasterâ€š and the Bridgeâ€š albums, they were both self-titled.
Rollercoaster was released first in early 1993, with the Bridge album arriving later that same year. The release of so much material so quickly helped keep Kozelek focused. The band had taken to playing an unusual adaptation of the Kiss tune â€˜Shock Meâ€™, which was released as the title track of an EP and exposed Kozelek's classic seventies rock roots beyond doubt. More importantly, the Shock Me EP featured â€˜Sundays and Holidaysâ€™ and â€˜Three-Legged Catâ€™, quiet acoustic numbers that marked a significant shift in the band's sound. Any accusations of "indie-rock" stopped here.
For 1995's Ocean Beach, Kozelek removed much of the reverb from his voice. It signified a new confidence. Once visibly nervous and shaking behind the microphone, he'd become more comfortable on stage. Fans expecting to see an introvert reluctantly exposing his delicate inner soul were greeted by a casual friend who was suddenly telling jokes when not manhandling his back catalogue. Ocean Beach found Kozelek continuing to evolve as a writer. He didn't need a personal crisis to spur the creative juices. â€˜Summer Dressâ€™ was a joyful acoustic number. while â€˜San Geronimoâ€™ matched the majesty of vinyl records with the beautiful California landscape surrounding him.
Gorden Mack left Red House Painters soon after the album's completion, unintentionally capping the band's 4AD period. Red House Painters' final 4AD release was the double-disc Retrospective compilation in 1999.