Well, Kozelek listeners have been down this road many times before. In between releasing some of the most gorgeous albums ever recorded by one man and a guitar, (*) he also excels at the art of interpretation.
However, instead of devoting a complete cover record to one artist, the line-up is varied this time around. (Kozelek’s previous covers have encompassed whole albums of a single band: Modest Mouse, AC/DC). Like Rats sees Kozelek tackling some prog-rock (Genesis, Yes), some pop numbers (Sonny and Cher, Bruno Mars), and most interestingly a slew of early hardcore/punk numbers. If you’ve never heard how effectively Kozelek is at covering other artists, the following video comparison should prove helpful.
And herein lies the problem of covers, it’s easy to alter the form but much harder to imbue the original with new emotion. Kozelek’s covers have always walked the line between emotional re-interpretation and clever arrangement. A few years ago he did a fantastic cover of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll be there“. Yes, the striped-down fingerpicked guitar version is pretty, but he also breathes new life into lyrics that are both route and universal….
So how are the results here? Overall quite amazing. Because Kozelek does this so often its easy to forget how effective he is using only his low-slung voice and nylon-string guitar. The old punk covers are the most striking (mainly because of the marked contrast of the original versions). Some work some don’t. The Descendent’s “Silly Girl” is a good example of reconfiguring the emotion of the original. Unfortunately, The Day Glo Abortions song “I Killed Mommy” is, well, just a really stupid song. Maybe it was shocking and controversial once, long ago. Even Kozelek can’t bring any justice to this dog.
However, the polar opposite of that is the Misfits classic, Green Hell. The lyrics on the original are mildly decipherable, but just barely. Here Kozelek lets us hear all the word-wielding might of Glenn Danzig. The thing I like best about this interpretation is how it totally capitalizes on the mesmerizing abstractness of the song itself. Much like the Day Glo Abortions, many of the more lyrically straightforward Misfits songs would be more obvious choices (Last Caress, Where Eagles Dare, etc), but Green Hell is a nebulous tome about what:? Some sort of hell, green hell, who knows?! This indescribable phenomenon is what Kozelek captures perfectly in his version. Misfits covers are nothing new (Pajo, Lemonheads, Taco Jon), but this surely stands as one of the best ever.
In the end, if you’re a Kozelek/Sun Kil Moon/Red House Painters fan, this is an obvious purchase. It’s just another great chapter from a fascinating artists who continues to work wonders. (Order it from CaldoVerde, so you can get yet another great live disc, where Kozelek re-interprets himself among other things.)
*Kozelek is an acquired taste, when I told my wife, excitedly, that he had a covers record coming out, she responded with: “Oh great, he can suck the life out of a bunch of new songs.”