Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

"But, really, a Modest Mouse covers album? That inherently deserves a "suck it." Why does the world need Sun Kil Moon doing Modest Mouse covers? I think resources could have been used better." ~igLiz, Dec 2005, possibly intoxicated.

I wonder what was going through Mark Kozelek's head when he decided to record an album of Modest Mouse covers. I mean, I'll give Sun Kil Moon their AC/DC covers record from a few years back. That's fine. They did that album of covers, and you would have thought Kozelek might have had it out of his system? But, now I'm forced to ponder what he was thinking. Maybe he wasn't thinking; maybe it was just boredom, and he figured, "What the hell — I like Modest Mouse. I think I'll learn some covers." And then, after going through the trouble of digging through old lyric books from Sad Sappy Sucker to figure out exactly what Isaac Brock is singing, decided he was too worn out to write a record of his own songs, and did this instead.

The result is a castrated Modest Mouse record, with Mark Kozelek's I-just-got-punched-in-the-face voice groaning where Isaac Brock once howled. Kozelek, famed for the lovely Red House Painters of the 90's and the more recent Sun Kil Moon (under which moniker this Mumbling Mouse record was released), failed to make his record of covers interesting. He broke the cardinal rule of covers.

Let us examine famous covers. One of the most famous, Hendrix covering Dylan with "All Along the Watchtower," reinvented the song by taking elements of the original — in this case the basic Am – G – F chord progression — and augmenting them into the new artist's style (Hendrix's amazing guitar playing). The two versions sound like entirely different songs; Hendrix's guitar becomes the focus of the cover, while the lyrics remain the core of the original.

Tiny Cities fails because Kozelek does not augment anything at all from the original songs. It's as though the original recordings of great tracks like "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" were giant cows in a slaughterhouse, swaying back and forth in groggy death before crashing with a thud to the bloody floor.

Imagine it Isaac Brock's way:

"Gonna hit you on your face / Gonna hit you in your glasses / Wearing a shirt that says 'the world is my ashtray."

Now imagine a ten-year-old with a speech impediment, mumbling his way through the same lyrics, not conscious that words have meaning.

Sun Kil Moon doesn't translate Modest Mouse into a new style, the way Hendrix did Dylan or Guns 'n Roses did Dylan; rather, the Sun Kil Moon versions sound more like bad, unfinished Sun Kil Moon songs. Kozelek succeeds in his own music when his emotion and feeling comes through in his lyrics. He simply wasn't built to sing Modest Mouse, lest he reinvent the way he sings to meet these songs halfway.

But at least it is interesting in one aspect: who knew "Jesus Christ was an Only Child" could sound so much like a George Harrison rip-off?