Words About Music
Veteran songwriter Mark Kozelek hardly needs an introduction, but I’ll venture one anyway. He initially came up as the lead vocalist of beloved Bay Area slowcore/indie rock band Red House Painters, whose music is definitely worth checking out. After that band imploded, Mark went off on his own under the name Sun Kil Moon, under which he has operated since 2003. Since then, he’s put out an endless, prolific stream of releases, with his prolificacy growing more and more as he gets older.
Hell, we’re nearing the end of 2017 and Mark’s already dropped four full-length projects (not including EPs). Of them, “Yellow Kitchen” is his third. For this record, which is far shorter than his other full-length ventures this year, he chose to collaborate with Parquet Courts bassist Sean Yeaton, which seems like a pretty random choice for a collaboration. In fact, before this release, I was unaware that Yeaton even had his own solo material in the works, which ranges from straightforward indie rock to glitchy, bizarre electronic music.
In some ways, “Yellow Kitchen” feels like the less-well-formulated afterthought successor to “30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth,” the excellent collaborative album Kozelek dropped back in May with Jesu, marking their second album together in as many years. Some of these songs feel like collections of loose sketches of stories, anecdotes, and melodies, with this particular set of tracks appearing to consist of notes Kozelek jotted during the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017. You hear him sing about the U.S. presidential election, chocolate, and barking dogs, among the usual subjects. At 41 minutes, it’s simultaneously the easiest Kozelek release to digest in a while and the least consequential. It’s a freewheeling exercise, and it feels like it.
The album kicks off with “Time to Destination,” with its abrupt, urgent bit of piano and what sounds like a horn. Kozelek sings about his trip to China a few days before the U.S. presidential election and how he was able to close himself off from the nightmare. Yeaton’s musical contribution to this album is bizarre and off-kilter, and adds quite a bit atmosphere to this record. Kozelek’s performance on this track is more of a spoken-word bit with some loose rhyme with some singing interspersed, focusing on his hatred for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. He reminisces about the early 1990s, before corporate takeover accelerated to the point where, as Mark puts it, that run-down church down the street becomes Google HQ.
As usual, he unloads his lyrics so quickly and with so much wit and vigor that it can be easy to lose track of it all. Especially considering he jumps back and forth between sarcastic comments about singing personal songs “to cell phones” to enjoying his hotel in Beijing which disallows Google and Facebook. “Time to Destination” is a tense opening track, and definitely one of the funniest and most biting on the album. There are too many great lines to recall, so definitely give this track a listen if you want to get an idea of what Mark Kozelek’s lyrical delivery is like these days.
Sean Yeaton’s ambient compositions become even darker and murkier on the next track, “No Christmas Like This.” It sounds like pitched-down car alarms from miles away. It’s cool to hear Mark sing over this kind of music, as it presents a nice change of pace from the rest of his discography. This is more comparable to the record he put out with Jimmy LaValle several years ago. It weirdly jumps back and forth between experimental, new-age drones and a distant indie-kraut rhythm. Mark also goes in on a series of lines that all mention different, specific varieties of chocolate, censoring certain, genital-related words with the sound of a bass or a synth bleep, which is pretty funny.
He segues from chocolate directly into singing about his upcoming colonoscopy, because that’s the kind of songwriter Mark Kozelek is. He expresses his worries about aging, specifically reaching the 50 milestone, hoping that all of his various bodily functions will at least operate at minimum working level. He finally recommends that you hit up Chinatown on Christmas to get some duck fried rice and egg drop soup, digging at himself once more for his colonoscopy with a sweet one-liner, and then it’s over. I can’t say this is my favorite track on the album, especially with its haphazard structure and not-as-interesting-as-usual lyrics, but it’s not awful.
The next track, “I’m Still in Love with You,” kicks off sounding like a more typical Koz/Sun Kil Moon track with its lo-fi acoustic guitar plucking. There are some somewhat annoying sequenced mouth-sounds at the midpoint in the track, but they don’t last too long. I don’t really listen to Mark Kozelek so I can hear shitty beat-boxing, so I could’ve done without it. The second half of the track is also pretty underwhelming, with Mark moodily talk-singing about watching a movie with his girlfriend on her birthday. Overall, I end up feeling pretty sour toward this track.
At this point, we’ve hit the halfway mark. Plinky keyboard chords kick off the next song, “Somebody’s Favorite Song.” After singing about a dream he had, he goes into a story about his interaction with a young woman working the counter at a pharmacy. He brings his very, very, very, very, very, very recent colonoscopy back into the narrative, of course, and then moves toward the end of the first half. Things get meta with Mark singing, almost in an improvisational manner, about what this very song should be called, deciding to call it “Somebody’s Favorite Song,” and saying that it will be exactly 4 minutes long, which he says at exactly the 4 minute mark.
In this half of the song, he sings in a similar structure and manner to the first half. He awakes from a dream and has an interaction with a young woman, except this time it’s more negative. When waiting outside his girlfriend’s apartment for her to come out, a different neighboring tenant questions his presence. Mark admittedly makes this conversation very difficult for everyone involved, partly because he’s famously curmudgeonly and partly because he was pretty tired and grumpy at the time anyway. This song is definitely one of the short album’s highlights, and I think Sean Yeaton puts together a pretty decent instrumental here.
The next track is the album’s shortest. “The Reasons I Love You” runs at 3.5 minutes, and this, too, sounds more like something that would pop up on a Sun Kil Moon proper album. I love the plaintive acoustic guitar strumming here, although I could do without the somewhat obnoxious click track. It’s a straightforward song of love and devotion to Caroline, Mark’s girlfriend, who has popped up on many of his previous albums. I like the turn the song takes when it slows down, with lovely vocal layers forming an ambient backing for the song as Mark gets into reasons he loves Caroline #6 and #7.
The last song is its longest by far. “Daffodils” is a dark, 12-minute song that begins with Mark recounting his visit to an open mic night and the various sets he witnesses. I love the line where Mark says, after witnessing a set he enjoyed: “I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey I liked your set’/But he just shrugged at me and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I get it.'” Sean Yeaton’s instrumentation here continues down the vein of synth-y, minimalist ambient music, eventually adding some textured, very-welcome organic drums to the situation.
This track definitely has Mark’s most unhinged, wild performance on the album. He even impersonates a dog at one point around the halfway point. He builds the anger and intensity that I think the somber instruments necessitates, striking a near-perfect balance. He nearly encounters a bout of sleep paralysis in this track but is able to rouse himself out of it. It coincides in some trips down memory lane, remembering a former lover who has since passed away. It’s a pretty depressing ending to the track and the album as a whole, but Mark Kozelek has a way of pulling the listener in with his words, whether he’s being comedic, self-deprecating, sad, romantic, or any other emotion really.
Overall, “Yellow Kitchen” is not a bad album by any means. It definitely gives me a newfound respect for Sean Yeaton, who is by no means the most recognizable member of Parquet Courts. He clearly has an ear for weird, experimental production that I’d love to hear more of in the future, even if it could still use some polish and structure. And Mark Kozelek, more often than not, comes through with his usual brand of lyricism and vocal performance on this album, so you’re not going to like this if you’re already sick of this dude.
This isn’t essential material, though. It’s a bit too short and underdeveloped for its own good. I’d like to hear these two come back together in the future, but I’d like to hear more songs like “Time to Destination” and “Daffodils” than “I’m Still in Love with You.” I see more potential in this than was actualized, which is a disappointment, but I’ve heard enough great material from Parquet Courts and Mark Kozelek in the past couple years that has me not too stressed about the content of this one release. It’s a good album, it just pales in comparison to most of the material Kozelek’s dropped this year, and it doesn’t entirely stand out save a few key moments.
SCORE — 7.00 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Time to Destination, Somebody’s Favorite Song, The Reasons I Love You, Daffodils