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Sun Kil Moon:: Tiny Cities (Album Review)

At the risk of being excoriated repeatedly by The Modest Mouse Club, I must first admit that the only record I own of theirs is Good News for People Who Love Bad News, perhaps the most displeasing entry in the band’s catalogue for fans, and I haven’t listened to that for, like, three months. I know, I know. It’s criminal that I would dare examine Sun Kil Moon’s Tiny Cities without first understanding the preexisting emotional resonances of the songs included. It’s criminal because I’m encroaching upon a space from which I have actively sequestered myself. It’s criminal because it took Mark Kozelek to show me that behind Isaac Brock’s disconcerting, awkward vox is a strong lyrical foundation. But here’s the thing: all that doesn’t really matter.

It doesn’t matter because there are two types of tributes: those that are merely rote rehashes (you know, Eve 6 cover bands and such) meant solely to evoke happiness through precise nostalgia and those that view music as a reconstructive endeavor—those that see each note and lyric of every song as conditional appearances. Neither supercedes the other when they encounter a tyro’s ear, but the latter possesses the most puissance because of its transformative nature. Song is best viewed as an incomplete science offered by its creator as a challenge to all of us; a challenge to unravel, to decipher, to deconstruct, and especially to reconfigure. Tiny Cities, while lacking in certain respects, does all these.

A striking feature of the entire album is its brevity. Ghosts of The Great Highway was marked by density and extension, layered narratives and visceral characters, presented no more wondrously than in the 14-minute opus of “Duk Koo Kim.” With a total run time a little over 30 minutes, Tiny Cities requires a paradoxical speed to understanding the tales described since songs seem to blossom as quickly as they furl. Sometimes you feel that this was definitely to the album’s detriment, especially on “Space Travel Is Boring.” The orchestral support never feels as though it was offered the chance to expand the sonic parameters and was instead thrown in almost without consideration. “Dramamine” presents the same phenomenon, since when the backing band enters there’s only a little under two minutes left and the piece has exhausted its transformative effects. The collapsed nature of the album is a bit surprising given Kozelek’s historical strength with extended soundscapes.

This still doesn’t terribly dilute the album’s aggregate impact, and many will surely appreciate the ease with which the lyrics and themes of the originals were translated into the acoustic environ. Kozelek doesn’t seem to derive the strength of the songs from public foreknowledge—except, perhaps, on his quotidian rendition of “Ocean Breathes Salty”—and instead employs his own strengths and, this is key, interpretations. Slight inflections and vocal emphases create perceptible changes in mood and tone and Kozelek once again does both deftly, so though he may not have written the songs themselves, he is undoubtedly the source of each one’s momentum.

In the long run, however, Tiny Cities should not be considered anything more than an interesting exercise of Kozelek’s tiniest muscles or a musical junket into slightly different territory. This fact is especially true for those of us who appreciate the man more than the message and even the opposite. Cover albums are tricky things because they conjure some of the most vivid memories and tell you to consider only the contours while the rest is reformed. The greatest impediment to the endeavor may ironically be those that are the most appreciative of the songs since they will be the least open to the process. I’m particularly dispassionate about Modest Mouse’s efforts, and even with Kozelek’s laudable work on this outing I feel that something more robust could have emerged had the roots been original.