Late night tales

May 9, 2001 at 12:00 am

The sticker on the review copy of Old Ramon says, under the name and title, “the long-awaited new album.” Now, a statement like that, placed prominently on product real estate, usually means that either the marketing folks are desperate for a hook upon which to hang the release of a forgotten artist, or it’s a collection of new nuggets from a pop icon for which the public salivates. The Red House Painters are “C. None of the above.” But the sticker doesn’t lie. (They never do, do they?)

Old Ramon, the first collection of nuggets from the painterly palette of singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek in more than five years, is the kind of record that rewards a loyal underground of surprisingly broad demographic diversity for all of its salivation, patience and allegiance.

Without fail, each of the 10 cuts on Old Ramon stretch out like snapshots of time spent traveling I-94 remembering too much. Kozelek’s threadbare narratives whisper truths and images we’d forgotten, and the band, er, paints an appropriately otherworldly, deadly accurate-if-ephemeral backdrop against which we can compare memory to stark reality.

Kozelek’s a sneaky songwriter, too. (But we knew that already didn’t we?) Almost without fail, each of Old Ramon’s tracks sink the barb of either the lyrical or melodic hook immediately into your craw and slowly, methodically, over the next seven minutes, reel you to the surface through layers of emotional murk, ambivalence, fuzzy jangle and sundown-warm, open-road guitar rock. There’s so much between the lines that’s familiar about Old Ramon, in fact, that it feels, as with many works from the Uncle Tupelo Family, like an eerie distillation of every song that’s ever brought your mortality into focus even while you flick the ash of another cigarette out the crack in the car window.

Sometimes that sentiment’s overt, such as on “Void” — the centerpiece of an album with a void at its center: “Fill the void in me now/Red light cruisin’ tonight.” Hell, often it’s overt. Kozelek mixes in near-mystical imagery (as on “River”) with the kind of worn hardwood floor, open-book stories to which he’s laid special claim and for which he’s earned a devoted core of fans willing to wait five years for the next batch of late-night tales.

E-mail Chris Handyside at [email protected].