[Caldo Verdo, 2013]
Tom Lundregan, March 6, 2013
Listen: “I Got You Babe”
When you make a living largely doing cover songs, it can really only go one of two ways. Either you are revered for taking songs and reworking them into a style that is fresh and clever, or you are reviled for taking songs and reworking them into a style that makes them almost unrecognizable from the original. Mark Kozelek has been put into both categories throughout his career. And let’s face facts – Kozelek is really the one person succeeding at making a living doing covers songs right now. Not to sell Kozelek short; he is not just a cover artist as he started by composing his own brand of folk songs for 12 years as the leader of Red House Painters. He has also sprinkled original recordings into both his solo career and his time as the force behind Sun Kil Moon. But with Kozelek, it always comes back to craftily covering songs in his own distinct style. Whether it’s “AC/DC as done by Leonard Cohen” or “Modest Mouse as done by Nick Drake”, Kozelek loves covers – and the more different the original is from his personal style, the better.
With Kozelek’s latest solo effort, Like Rats, he draws from many far flung genres, shaping them all into his vision for a coherent album of covers by 13 different artists. How does he end up with covers of metal, punk reggae, pop, prog rock and disco songs ranging from the last 40 years of music? With such a diverse group of songs did he just look for as many shocking, surprising types of music and songs as possible? The answer can be found in the only thing these songs have in common – these must be songs that are near and dear to Kozelek’s heart – there is a kind of awe and reverence taken with each refashioning.
Like Rats begins like a troubadour’s lament with the lines “Not as much but with such intensity/I’d like to be what they would not want me to be.” But as soon as it gets to “I like to cram their chivalry inside their guts,” the realization hits that this is not a cover of an old folkie, but rather of one of the best punk, hardcore, speed guitar songs of all time – Bad Brain’s “I,” from their 1982 self-titled debut. While the attempt is extremely admirable, the lack of the original’s yodeling outro is actually missed here.
No matter how disparate the original from the cover, Kozelek’s versions are always interesting. “Silly Girl” takes on the mid-80s Descendents and delivers a punk rock love song as a slow, beautiful ballad. The titular girl’s silliness goes from condescending to endearing in Kozelek’s version. No cover is more interesting then when he takes Maxine Nightingale’s 70s classic disco track, “Right Back From Where We Started From,” and turns it into something akin to a Gordon Lightfoot love lament set in the 21st century.
A couple of the songs from Like Rats can drag a bit, especially Kozelek’s version of Genesis’ “Carpet Crawlers.” This may be due to his version being the closet to the original of any on this album – or it may just be that Kozelek’s cover styling works better on shorter songs, and at over four minutes, this is by far the longest song on the album. With 10 of the 13 songs coming in at under 3 minutes, Kozelek seems to understand that with longer songs his style may not be as effective or may lose the power in its ephemeralness. There can be a sameness to the stripped down vocal/acoustic guitar, it is after all, the “Kozelek style” – but when he adapts Ted Nugent’s “Free for All,” he kicks it up a small notch. While still not as rollicking as the original, it has more pep to it and more urgency in the strumming – real justice to the original, while still staying in form. With the serial killer-themed “I Killed Mommy” from the Dayglo Abortions, Kozelek has the power to turn the singer from a psychotic killer to an almost sympathetic folk hero all while keeping the same ominous tone and singing lines like “killed that bitch with a baseball bat” and “killed my momma with an automatic.”
Just when things start to feel a little repetitive, Kozelek wraps up Like Rats with a real gem, the Sonny and Cher classic, “I Got You Babe.” He takes the 1965 ubiquitous duet with the ultimate “us against the world” mentality, and sings it as a solo love expression, with a taste of begging and desperate hope that the recipient feels the same way. It’s a fine twist on an old classic. And in the end, that’s what Kozelek really does – though not always with the popular classics. Like Rats takes what Kozelek believes to be classics, turns them inside out and strips them down, but always with love and respect for the original.