After years on the shelf due to Mark Kozelek's drawn-out problems with Supreme and Island, the Red House Painters' long-awaited Old Ramon finally sees the light of day, thanks to Sub Pop. As it stands, the label needs Kozelek as much as he needs them -- after a few years' worth of disappointing releases from garage rock revivalists, Old Ramon breaks Sub Pop's losing streak. Ironically, the album's long-delayed release only makes its joyous sound that much more refreshing; its inviting mix of gentle and fuzzy guitars and Kozelek's empathetic vocals make it the Painters' most hopeful, accessible work. Though one of Old Ramon's finest songs, "Find Me, Reuben Olivares," ended up on the Shanti Project Collection, the remaining ten songs are first-rate expressions of Kozelek's thoughtful songcraft and guitar work. Beginning with "Wop-A-Din-Din," a chiming, charming tribute to Kozelek's cat, the album signals a lighter, freer approach than one might expect from the often-brooding Painters. Even slow, wistful numbers like "Smokey," "Cruiser," and "Void" -- whose title suggests a harrowing, soul-searching song like Down Colorful Hill's "24" -- sound downright sunny in comparison to Kozelek's early work. Though Old Ramon keeps the polish of later Red House Painters albums like Songs for a Blue Guitar, the album has an added immediacy and vitality, particularly on surprisingly poppy tracks like "Byrd Joel," a winning blend of folk and fuzz, and "Between Days," which features some of the most luscious-sounding guitars ever heard on a Red House Painters song. Kozelek's impressive, expressive guitar lines also get plenty of breathing room on the otherwise languid, 11-minute epic "River," while his rich, rounded vocals on the hypnotic "Golden" and countrified, slow-building "Michigan" reaffirm his place as one of alternative/indie rock's finest singers. The gently whimsical love song "Kavita" provides a happy ending to an album whose difficult story definitely deserves one. But in spite of the trouble surrounding it, Old Ramon is a surprisingly comfortable sounding album, as if its long delay was intended to let its songs mellow and ripen with time, making the long wait for it all the more worthwhile.
- Byrd Joel
- Between Days