Ghosts of the Great Highway

So in this age of multiple anxieties, when none of us can be sure of how sick we really are, we ask a singer who writes songs peopled with sentimental serial killers and absent fathers to lead us out of the depressive muck and into a better way of feeling good?

We do? Well, yes, when it is Mark Kozelak — a crushingly smug heartbreaker who kisses and tells all — doing the writing and singing. Like investigative-rock “poets” Jim Morrison and Ian Curtis before him, Kozelak isn’t afraid of the dark: his best catches come from the most unpleasant places, where few of us would dare to go, in or out of love.

Kozelak’s Sun Kil Moon project ascends from the ashes of Red House Painters, who crashed beneath the weight of commercial indifference after releasing six studio LPs in a nine-year stretch beginning with 1992’s Down Colorful Hill on 4AD and ending with SubPop’s Old Ramon in 2001.

“Sad, elegant and beautiful” summarizes RHP’s legacy. That and slow-developing, occasionally embarrassing guitar jams that Neil Young might have killed for had he not been there first in the 1970s.

Kozelak’s sincerity and spiritual toughness ruled over all his failings, and so it continues on Ghosts of the Great Highway, Sun Kil Moon’s splendid, open-hearted debut.

“Carry Me Ohio,” in which our narrator mumbles a wistful remembrance of a state (of mind and geography), confessing, “I’m sorry ... that I could never love you back/I could never care enough these last days,” is a floating, jangly powerhouse; “Duk Koo Kim” shimmers skyward like a prayer, then begins a gorgeous descent when Kozelak finally stops singing and allows the Portuguese guitars and xylophones to take centerstage; “Gentle Moon,” the kind of mid-tempo soft-rocker that in another world would be called radio-friendly; and the chunky grinders, “Salvador Sanchez” and “Lily and Parrots,” are all standouts here.

Featuring former members of American Music Club, Black Lab, Hella and Red House Painters, you might call Sun Kil Moon the first California gothic supergroup; or just call them a bunch of guys who are probably happiest when it rains. Especially the mighty Kozelak, who continues to mine his sweet misery to no apparent end. For that we can all sigh in satisfaction.

E-mail Walter Wasacz at [email protected].

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