Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Shuffle: Salvador Sanchez

I love me some Mark Kozelek.



There are songwriters you know are great. Bob Dylan, say. I know he writes great songs, fantastic, witty, erudite lyrics, full of meaning, playful, obscure, surreal, political, heartfelt. And melodies, in timeless structures, both simple and complex, rooted in an American folk tradition, referencing rock and country and the blues. I get that. I have maybe 10 Dylan albums, possibly more. All the ones you're supposed to have if you believe what Mojo tells you. I like most of it, even love perhaps a half dozen songs. I use the word "love" to mean I've lived with a song, let it in, listened to it intently, repeatedly, heard it so many times I'm almost sick of it, felt it connect with me in a way I'm barely able to articulate. There are a few Dylan songs I feel that way about. "4th time Around" definitely. "If You See Her, Say Hello". "One More Cup Of Coffee", "Sarah", the live version of "One too Many Mornings". Songs that resonated with me from the start, that I knew were meant for me. But I've never loved Dylan. Because he doesn't get me in the gut the way some songwriters do. I respect his stuff, admire his talent - even genius - and I like lots of his songs, but I don't feel it the way I do about some other, supposedly "lesser" songwriters. Beck is another example. I like Beck a lot. But most of his stuff I've admired and enjoyed but not really felt. Its clever, nicely done, but lacking in any emotional kick for me. Except for a handful of songs, and "Sea Change", the one album where he seems to actually mean what hes singing, to feel it himself. I love that album, but I doubt he'll ever make another like it.

It may all be a question of sensibility. Some artists see the world in a way that is familiar to you or resonates with you, and whatever they have to say about the world will thence be more palatable to you, because they're effectively speaking your language. In that way, I can understand what Dylan is saying, but it doesn't feel like its in my native tongue, so its effect may be reduced. Whereas I get Elvis Costello in an immediate, gut-reaction way. Or Fred Neil. Paul Simon, even. Al Green, Elliott Smith, Paul Westerberg, Michael Head, David Crosby, Judee Sill, Marvin Gaye, dozens of others. Mark Kozelek.

Over the last few years, Kozelek's songs are the ones that make the most sense to me, that hit me heaviest emotionally. Oh, they are beautifully composed pieces, generally with beautiful, sad melodies and mysterious, elliptical lyrics. But its not that simple an equation, how we respond to music. It may be all mathematics, but the effect of a series of notes lined up together one after another and a bit of poetry thrown over the top can defy all logical enquiry.

Kozelek was the singer-songwriter in the San Franciso group the Red House Painters, which is where much of his most celebrated work was done. At that time he specialised in slow, beautiful ballads of love, loss and addiction. His musical and lyrical territory was bleak and hopeless, and the band's sound vacillated between long, mournful acoustic numbers and great heavy dissonant soundscapes. Red House Painters released 5 albums between 1992 and 1996, split up, and released another posthumous album in 2001. They were an amazing band, and Kozelek possesses a formidably focused and distinctive talent, both as a singer, where his deep, sometimes keening voice is put to great use by his incredible songs, and as a writer. Honest and frequently harrowing, his songs are also often exhilaratingly beautiful. I'd unreservedly recommend any of their records or the 1999 "Retrospective" Best of album.

After the split, Kozelek did some acting - he plays the bassist in Stillwater in Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous". Crowe is a big Kozelek fan and his songs feature on the soundtracks for "Vanilla Sky" and "Elizabethtown". He also began touring and recording under his own name, beginning with the "Rock 'N' Roll Singer" EP in 2000. It included a couple of covers of Bon Scott-era AC/DC songs, reimagined and recontextualised until they became almost unrecognisable in Kozelek's hands. He made them sound like timeless acoustic blues standards (which in a way I suppose they are), often shimmering, mournful, sad and funny. He followed the EP with an album of AC/DC songs: "Whats Next to the Moon" was released in 2001, and it maintained the high standard of the EP's treatment of the material.

In 2003 he once again assembled a band around him, naming them "Sun Kil Moon" in homage to the Korean boxer Moon Sung-Kil, and releasing the "Ghosts of the Great Highway" album. Which brings us to "Salvador Sanchez". Sun Kil Moon sound quite different to Red House Painters. The sound is lighter and folkier, the playing more delicate and expansive, the moments of beauty more prevalent and more obvious, sometimes coming in Mexican touches - a little Mariachi guitar here, a spanish strum there - in various songs. Many songs have strings gliding beneath the guitars. Lyrically, Kozelek's focus seems to shifted also - the songs all circle around the themes of memory and loss, the significance of cultural minutae, and people taken from us, many dead before their time. Kozelek repeatedly refers to a series of boxers who died young. There are mentions for Duk Koo Kim (the 2002 film "Champion" is about him), another Korean, killed in an 1982 fight, Pancho Villa, a Filipino flyweight who died tragically in 1925, Benny Paret, a Cuban who was killed in a 1962 fight with Emile Griffith, and Sonny Liston.



Salvador Sanchez was a young Mexican bantam and featherweight boxer who became WBC Featherweight Champion in February 1982 but could only enjoy his status for seven months. He died in a car accident in his new Porsche in August 82 at the age of 23. He had been famed for his warrior qualities, his ability to outfight better boxers. Kozelek's lyric calls him "sweet warrior, pure magic matador" before going on to link him with Paret and Villa. The chorus asks "Where have they gone, bound by leather, all alone, all bound together". But with Kozelek, often you can barely decipher the lyrics, as he slurs words together or buries them beneath guitar distortion. He's always loved a Crazy Horse-style guitar workout. The Red House Painters album "Songs For a Blue Guitar" features a cover of Wings' "Silly Love Songs". In Paul McCartney's hands, this was a bouncy, empty, mindlessly happy three minute pop song. Kozelek adds a five minute guitar solo - reminiscent of Neil Young's awesome "Cortez the Killer" - to the very start of the song, effectively making the listener wait for the recognisable McCartney work - then stretches the rest out to just over eleven minutes. "Salvador Sanchez" features a sunburst guitar sound, bright and crunchy and groaning away through a strangely optimistic, lovely riff which runs through almost the entire song. Its this almost mythic guitar sound, and the something almost ancient it evokes in all its magnificent, creaking, rattling, roaring glory, which raises this little piece of poetry about a few brave, dead young men to another level, absolutely bringing the lyric alive. The repeated boxing references (Kozelek returns to Salvador Sanchez in the song "Pancho Villa", which is the same lyric and melody, only played acoustically and oh so sadly) echo and reflect the other songs on the album, where they sit beside songs of love lost (Carry Me Ohio) and hymns to nature (Gentle Moon) in a sort of suite which is perhaps Kozelek's greatest work.

Since then, Sun Kil Moon have released "Tiny Cities" in 2005, another album entirely of covers, this time of Modest Mouse songs. Again he redefines and personalises the songs, stretching them out, altering some melodies, underlining some lyrics. And good as it is and beautiful as many of the renditions are, they cannot match Kozelek's own compositions. He's due another album of originals this or next year, and I can't wait.

As for Salvador Sanchez, many rate him one of the greatest boxers of all time. Heres a short tribute, with some footage of his unrelenting yet elegant toe-to-toe style (and a guitar sound which Kozelek almost seems to consciously echo on the album):

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7 Comments:

Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

I like Sanchez.

Going toe-to-toe to me is where all the honour is in boxing. I never liked the slippy slidey types like Naseem Hamed, ducking in and out, rushing in like a snake then retreating immediately to a safe distance. It just seems kinda cowardly to me.

I realise of course that it's usually an effective method...keeping yourself out of danger as much as possible is a good idea. But it's a fight, and didn't you hate those kids at school who would run up and aim a kick at you before scarpering off again? Denying you a proper fight?

The little weasels.

12:13 am  
Blogger Monsterwork said...

So where do you feel Crowded House, then? In your ass?

8:44 am  
Blogger David N said...

Davey : but the greatest fighter of the modern era - Ali - was a slippy slidey type. In his youth, anyway. When he got older and slower he went toe-to-toe, because he had to, his speed wasn't what it had been. But when he had the advantage of speed over every opponent he fought, why not use it?

The thing I hate is how so much boxing is just grappling and holding with little exchange of punches. Thats worse than guys than guys gliding in and out of range and picking their shots..

Ed : fucking right I feel Neil Finn's stuff, yeah. Not sure if my prostate is involved, I doubt I've explored its sensitivity as closely as you have yours. All that silly metal music does bad things to the bowels though, eh?

12:06 am  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

Yeah, the huggy huggy crap is tedious, I agree. No-one really enjoys Lennox Lewis cuddling his opponents into submission.

I'm not going to try and argue against Ali's greatness, or his skill and speed - I just find the other kind of fighter more of a warrior, I guess. Think Apollo Creed and Rocky, Apollo is fast...and smart, Rocky has nothing but grit and heart...so I root for him. It might just be an underdog thing, LaMotta springs to mind.

Sluggish dullards need our support.

I know he gets fast in the third one to beat Clubber, but he's not very likable in that one.

12:21 am  
Blogger David N said...

If you were a boxer, you'd be toe-to-toe, is what you're saying? I respect that. I expect I would be too. Size and shape dictates that to an extent.

You know in the ancient world, when the Greeks (I think, but I can't be bothered to google it, and it may well have been another civilization) first began to box for sport, the two fighters were joined together by a sash wrapped around both their waists, meaning they could only get about an arms length away from one another?

Not to mention the fact that they both had rudimentary knuckle-dusters : iron bars in their fists....ouch.

This all also brings to mind the Marv vs. Kevin fight in Sin City. The comic, I mean, though the film does a pretty good job of capturing the appeal of the scene. The slippy-slidey, fast little guy picking his shots, the big lumbering ox unable to lay a finger on him. But when Marv gets the cuffs on and all it takes is one punch...thats an immensely satisfying, fuck-yeah moment. Revenge for lumbering oxen everywhere.

What I guess I'm saying, though I haven't actually said it yet, is that it depends on who is fighting. I like slippy-slidey Ali. Or slippy-slidey Spiderman. But I don't want the Hulk to be slippy-slidey. Or Mike Tyson.

1:18 am  
Blogger Monsterwork said...

I'm a kind of wibbly wobbly fighter. And by fighter I mean loser.

8:54 am  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

I like Billy Bob Thornton's fighting lessons in Bad Santa. Be drunker than the other guy, that way you can take more punishment and it doesn't effect you.

Also kick the other guy in the balls.

And get mad. Get fucking mad.

10:30 pm  

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