Thursday, May 21, 2020

CD Odyssey Disc 1370: Sun Kil Moon

I don’t know about you, but I could really be done with this whole pandemic thing. While you wait it out, here’s a music review. That is why I expect you’re here, after all. If you’re here for something else then for God’s sakes, don’t keep scrolling down. You’re only in for ever-increasing disappointment.

Disc 1370 is…. Ghosts of the Great Highway
Artist: Sun Kil Moon

Year of Release: 2003

What’s up with the Cover? Some angry looking kid in a soiled shirt that I can almost guarantee did not play on the album.

How I Came To Know It: A few years ago I read a Paste Magazine article called “the Top 100 indie folk albums of all time”. This article sent me down many different rabbit holes, as I explored each record and (if suitably inspired) then explored that band’s full catalogue. I discovered Jens Lekman there, as well as Johnny Flynn, the Civil Wars and a whole host of others. Among those others was this album by Sun Kil Moon.

In a stroke of synchronicity, Paste Magazine just updated the article this week, adding in new albums (and presumably knocking a few off the list at the same time). Here’s a link.

How It Stacks Up: This is my only Sun Kil Moon album, so it can’t stack up. Paste Magazine put it at #22 on their top 100 list, but that is plain ridiculous. It ain’t that good.

Ratings: 3 stars

“Ghosts of the Great Highway” answer the question, “what would folk music sound like if it were crossed with grunge?

The atmospheric and densely layered album demonstrates the wall-of-sound quality of grunge, although the sound is less screeching guitar and instead a latticework of guitar picking and lush strum patterns. Like grunge, you can submerge in the saturation of all the overlap, or you can tune into the melody weaving its way in and out of the background.

Kozelek’s high pining head voice floats over this soup, so pale and wan that he often sounds like he’s going to blow away in the wind. It is sonically effective, although I was often wishing I could understand his lyrics a bit better or, failing that, if he would just lighten up a bit.

The songs take their time and tend to blend into one another, and it is easy to hear the whole record as just one single track. The individual songs are long enough, with many running north of six minutes, including the fourteen minute excess of “Duk Koo Kim.” Is “Duk Koo Kim” a good song for all that? Sure, it’s solid enough. Does it need to be that long to achieve that level of OK? It decidedly does not. Yet somehow despite being over 58 minutes long, the record never feels like it drags, so it must be doing something right.

Part of that is Kozelek’s skill as a producer. He has a lot of layers here, but he’s put everything together in a way that lets you float up and down through the experience. It is sonically interesting stuff, which I expect is one reason it has been such a critical darling.

Subject wise, I should like this record more. Three song titles feature references to professional boxers from around the world: Salvador Sanchez, the aforementioned Duk Koo Kim and even a Pancho Villa. No, not the Mexican Revolutionary General, the Filipino flyweight champion. They both died in the 1920s, though - the general from political assassination in 1923, and the boxer from the even less common “complications from a tooth extraction” two years later. But I digress…

Do any of these songs have anything to do with boxing? They certainly do, and the lyrics are evocative and fascinating, although I found my mind too often drifted into the dreamy soup of the tune. Those layers of sound evolve slowly and organically, so it is easy to lose yourself. If this is how you like your music, then you’ll like this record. Because I tend to like things a little sparser, I enjoyed it slightly less.

The best song is the opening track, “Glenn Tipton” a song that immortalizes both of Judas Priest’s guitar players in one song, and also…boxing:

“Cassius Clay was hated
More than Sonny Liston
Some like K.K. Downing
More than Glenn Tipton
Some like Jim Nabors
Some Bobby Vinton
I like 'em all”

This brings the total number of boxers referenced on the record to at least five (there may be more – as noted above I faded out a couple times), “Glenn Tipton” is not about boxing, however. It is a beautiful meandering tale that wanders through corridors of the mind that take the narrator back to memories of his father, an old lady he knew who ran a doughnut shop, and eventually this little nugget:

“I buried my first victim
When I was nineteen
Went through her bedroom
And the pockets of her jeans
And found her letters
That said so many things
That really hurt me bad”

It is jarring, but it isn’t. The song wanders to this place so naturally it just feels like the next memory this character would share, and then he does.

Ultimately, I should have liked this record more than I did. It is both a collection of art pieces and a single art piece as well, with a sound that blossoms a bit more in your mind on each listen. However, its soft edges and diffuse feel could never fully penetrate my heart like they should have. For that reason alone I am holding it to a miserly three stars, when it probably deserves more.

Best tracks: Glenn Tipton, Carry Me Ohio, Salvador Sanchez, Lily and Parrots

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