30 January 2006

this is how he do it

tiny cities made of ashes : sun kil moon
click below left to listen. 3m 41s
tiny cities made of ashes : modest mouse
click below right to listen. 3m 13s

It's not often that you find a cover version of a song that's practically unrecognizable from the original. In most cases, what differentiates one from the other is the genre of the respective artists, like the White Stripes doing a demented rock version of Dolly Parton's country classic Jolene, or Skinny Puppy transforming Borderline by Madonna into an electro-rock travesty. Still, the rhythm, the pace, or sometimes both are usually the same, and anyone who knows the words would be able to follow. That's not the case with Mark Kozelek's cover of 11 Modest Mouse songs in Tiny Cities, his latest album under his band Sun Kil Moon.

Kozelek is not new to covers; he's done tributes to musicians as varied as John Denver, AC/DC, and Simon and Garfunkel. But this is the first time he took only one element of the songs – the lyrics – to create his own versions of them. In each song from Tiny Cities, gone are the electric guitars and Modest Mouse vocalist Isaac Brock's verbal vomit of philosophical thought. Kozelek placates them with his own brand of acoustic-guitar wistfulness and tempered, if slurred, singing. In some, he cuts the length of the songs down to a third. "If you listen to a song like Exit Does Not Exist, those words are coming out like an automatic weapon. It's really, really fast," he tells Pitchfork. "It's beautiful, but it's something that, if you're not into Modest Mouse, it's just going to go right by. I've slowed them down, and there's enough space in there that you can really hear what's going on. It becomes my own colors, you know?"

In Tiny Cities Made of Ashes – click here for the lyrics – what was menacing and foreboding has become a mixture of irony and resignation. It made me wonder, how many ways can the same set of words be expressed differently? If three different people sang Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 in three different ways, the outcome would probably be the same: they would all be sentimental and overflowing with love. With musicians like Kozelek, that may not be the case.

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