CD reviews

By Ben Ratliff and Jon Caramanic  /  NY Times News Service

Thu, Feb 13, 2014 - Page 11

Benji, by Sun Kil Moon

There may be no such thing as narrative honesty in a song, but Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon represents the idea, at least, in large canvases and deep, oily hues. On Benji, he writes from a tunnel of self-absorption, casual and graphomaniacal and sometimes sour. Hear 15 minutes’ worth, and you know, roughly, his age (mid-40s); his areas of interest (his family and his own past, rock ‘n’ roll, serial killers); where he’s from (near Canton, Ohio); his morality and class preoccupations; the story of his learning guitar, and exactly what he liked about the Led Zeppelin movie The Song Remains the Same.

Kozelek has been at it since the late ‘80s, when he started the band Red House Painters. He has a slouchy, marble-mouthed vocal delivery that tails off into a glottal fry or rises to light, soft, long notes, and he gravitates toward Neil Young tempos. In his six records as Sun Kil Moon, and especially since switching to nylon-string guitar a couple of years ago, he’s grown musically softer and narratively more intense. Benji is strong, cultish stuff, full of its own stink, full of stories about death and much, much smaller things; the stanzas are long and the yarns circular. They can sound like — and sometimes actually are — variations on things he has said in interviews.

It’s a rambling, repetitive, loose-form record that lacks a melody as strong as that in older Sun Kil Moon songs like Carry Me Ohio or Salvador Sanchez. But what sometimes makes it remarkable is Kozelek’s will to put the narrowness and ungainliness of daily life and work into his music. The obvious example of this tendency of this is the diary song, like Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes — in which the narrator, who we’ll call Mark Kozelek, is in the studio waiting for a drummer, reads the news of James Gandolfini’s death while eating ramen and drinking green tea, thinks about his prostate and keeps looping back to Ramirez, the serial killer; or Pray for Newtown, in which he sings of his reaction to mass shootings, including the story of how he discovered the news about them and his sense of sorrow for the victims.

Is this kind of thing interesting or uninteresting? Both, almost all the time. There’s the poignant pettiness of Ben’s My Friend, about seeing a younger friend become a more famous musician (Ben Gibbard, of Death Cab for Cutie); other songs touch on old sexual encounters and hornet stings and 1970s television shows. People die, or he’s worried that they will. Two different subjects of these songs are victims of in aerosol-can explosions. (Two.)

He sings one song about how and why he loves his father, and another called I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love, in which he mentions her age and then goes the extra step, affirming that she will die someday. (“Take her from me, I’ll break down and bawl,” he sings, “and wither away like old leaves in the fall.”) There are a number of traps in art and life in which one quality turns out to be related to its opposite: Guilelessness leads back toward guile, dry realism toward maudlin sentimentality, narrowness toward grandiosity. The bravery of Kozelek is that he isn’t avoiding any of these traps. He’s working with them. He may be enjoying them.

— Ben Ratliff

The Lights from the Chemical Plant, by Robert Ellis

There are two types of relationships in Robert Ellis’ world: the ones that survive despite — or maybe because of — their toxicity, and the ones that die, often mercifully. It’s unclear which kind he has more affection for on The Lights From the Chemical Plant, his gut punch of a third album of downcast roots music and soft, soft rock.

First, there is the desperate love, as on Chemical Plant,” which on the surface is about endless passion but has an ominous undertone, or on TV Song, which details a relationship that thrives via escapism.

These songs lead off the album, and they’re a bit of a head fake. Ellis, a relaxed singer, barely working harder than speaking, manages to make these loves sound warm. But after that, the pretense begins to fall away, and Ellis lets his relationships collapse, and he sounds even warmer, more sympathetic, more understanding.

On Only Lies, he helps a friend — who needs to hear the truth about her man but who can’t bear it — by lying to her. On Bottle of Wine, alcohol and cocaine undo a relationship. Ellis’ cover of Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years is relaxed, completely fluent in the rearview mirror.

Occasionally, Ellis paints a detail just a touch too literally, and on TV Song, there are wry Todd-Snider-ish moments that are perhaps out of place on this appealingly parched album. But mostly, Ellis stays out of his own way, and as it happens, out of the way of the ones he loves. Take Tour Song, both a plea for a woman to stay faithful to her man who’s on the road, and a man coming to terms with the fact that love alone won’t sustain a relationship: “Soon she’ll start to wonder what it is that I provide/And why the hell a husband can’t be by his woman’s side.”

— Jon Caramanic