When he started recording as Red House Painters in the early '90s, Mark Kozelek's chief strength was his ability to make blunt emotional declarations sound poetic and mysterious by submerging them beneath churning, milky guitars. But Kozelek started running on fumes fast, relying on mealy singer-songwriter concoctions that fell far short of the drawn-out codeine coma of his early work. But then he stumbled on a new role: that of interpreter. His 2001 record of AC/DC covers found him burrowing past the machismo to find a genuinely wounded core cowering behind the bravado. His take on the band's snide and sexist "You Ain't Got A Hold on Me" cannily subverts the song's central tenet, making it sound less like a kiss-off and more like a desperate attempt by the singer to convince himself of the sentiment.
He takes a similar tack on this collection of Modest Mouse songs, with wildly varying results. Because the Seattle outfit isn't as aesthetically distant as Bon and the boys, there's less here for Kozelek to undo or uncover. As a result, the album feels like little more than a series of soporific covers, offering few new entryways into the material.
The songs that come off best are the ones whose subject matter is directly confessional. "Neverending Math Equation" sets the song amidst a harvest of acoustic guitars, and "Space Travel is Boring" employs a swaying string section to heighten its melancholy mood.
But the highlight comes at the end, with Kozelek's stark, tender reading of "Ocean Breathes Salty." Where the original was a clunky funk number that awkwardly (and unfortunately) recalled the Red Hot Chili Peppers 'contribution to the Coneheads soundtrack, Kozelek's version is timid and vulnerable, making the pessimism that drives the song sound less like griping and more like resignation. "Maybe we'll get lucky and we'll both grow old," he sings, delivering the next line swiftly and sadly: "I don't know, I don't know — I hope so." It's moments like these when Kozelek's mournfulness is most effective, rendering the human condition in all its uncertainty and potential. It's a shame there weren't more of them.