The history behind the last two albums by Red House Painters is at least as well known as the music. The band were dropped from indie stalwart 4AD before the release of Songs For A Blue Guitar. Depending on which story you believe, this was: A) because of its stylistic change toward longer tracks with guitar solos B) because of the band's problems with the U.S. branch of the company C) because it was, in all but name, a Mark Kozelek solo album. At any rate, the band's final album, Old Ramon, was held up in release hell for three years due to record label mergers and other business-side bureaucracy. Kozelek finally bought back the rights and it was released by Sub Pop. Though he would soon form his own record label to avoid any such issues, creative freedom or otherwise, it's interesting how unfettered and focused Kozelek sounds on both Old Ramon and Blue Guitar.
My task here is to dispense with the latter. Having no experience with Kozelek's work pre-Blue Guitar (in terms of Red House Painters's discography, I mean), it's impossible for me to speak to how it compares to his earlier work. Anyway, there's no reason to go into comparisons or speaking of developments toward or away from a certain style. Songs For A Blue Guitar is a rich, lengthy album in its own right and a full demonstration of everything that makes Kozelek's music, under whatever name, so great. Like most of his work under the Sun Kil Moon moniker, it's roughly divided between delicate, poetic musings about love and the past ('Have You Forgotten') and long, Neil Young/Velvet Underground-circa-Loaded classic-style rock with solos and all ('Make Like Paper', a transformative cover of Wings's 'Silly Love Songs'). On a side note, this album also points the way toward releases, under both Kozelek's own name and under the Sun Kil Moon moniker, focused on covering other artist's songs, since three of the tracks here are covers...but I digress.
Most of Songs For A Blue Guitar ultimately can be divided between the two aforementioned styles, but it isn't entirely binary. 'I Feel The Rain Fall', a mellow country rock tune, sounds like Creedence Clearwater Revival with less groove. A cover of Yes's 'Long Distance Runaround' careens into a sudden stop and raucous guitar outro that sounds way more like sludgy, metal-y 90s alt rock than it does 70s prog rock. 'Priest Alley Song' namechecks the band's first album and has an intricate acoustic guitar melody that beautifully blooms into a full band arrangement roughly halfway through. And another cover, this time of The Cars's 'All Mixed Up', allows Kozelek to let loose on vocals, with his plaintive cries of "alllll mixed up."
The music of the Red House Painters, like all of Kozelek's work, has the air of cult-ness about it. The very things that people love about this band, and by extension this album, are the very things that other people hate. "The songs are depressing and the album is overly long," the detractors say. "No, the songs are poetic and emotionally affecting, and cutting any of the material would either dull the impact of the rest or muddle its flow and atmosphere," the fans say. As a critic first and a fan second, it falls to me, then, not to defend the band/Kozelek's music but to help qualify Songs For A Blue Guitar. Well, judged against either the standards of other music or the parts of Kozelek's discography I'm familiar with, this album is excellent, and a good introduction to his work for its transformative covers, melancholic acoustic numbers, and crunchy guitar rock.