Solo Listening



I’ve not been able to find out why San Franciscan folk rocker Mark Kozelek calls his band Sun Kil Moon except that the name is probably taken from that of a South Korean bantamweight boxer called Moon Sung-Kil and that Kozelek is deeply inspired by the sport of boxing. There’s a bit of Delhi-related but, otherwise unrelated trivia, too, which I found: Moon Sung-Kil won the gold in his class at the 1982 Asiad, which, as we all know, was held in Delhi! Sun Kil Moon’s new album, Benji, is punchy but not anywhere close to the kind of connotation that word could have in boxing. But the eleven songs on it have no-holds-barred lyrics and a sound that is haunting and spare.
Mark Kozelek’s baritone and his powers of narrating a story, make listening to Benji, his latest album, a very satisfying experience

Mark Kozelek’s baritone and his powers of narrating a story, make listening to Benji, his latest album, a very satisfying experience Photo: GettyImages

In nearly all of the songs, the lyrics tell stories that centre on the death of someone – an uncle or some other member of the family or a friend. But despite the morbidity of such a theme, the songs sound anything but deathly.

Benji (right) is an album that works best when heard alone; St. Vincent’s (above right) stunning music makes it indispensable listening

Benji (right) is an album that works best when heard alone; St. Vincent’s (left) stunning music makes it indispensable listening

Kozelek’s baritone and his powers of narrating a story, along with the sparingly done musical arrangements make listening to Benji a very satisfying experience. It’s mainly so for the lyrics. On Truck Driver, Kozelek talks about his uncle’s death and his funeral: I flew out there, I went to his funeral/ It was stormy that day, the sky was deep purple/ And babies were crying, Kentucky Fried Chicken was served/ And that’s how he would have wanted it I’m sure. On Carissa, Kozelek sings about a second cousin who died at 35 and had “raised kids since she was 15 years old”; on Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes, he sings of the life and death of a stalker and murderer; on Jim Wise, it is about a man who fails at suicide after killing his wife.

Like the other Sun Kil Moon album that I have – 2003’s Ghosts of the Great Highway – Benji is an album that works best when you listen to it alone, on the headphones or in a darkened room or just late at night on those occasions when you’re just not able to sleep. It is about heartbreak, tragedy and sorrow and yet, surprisingly, it is never depressing.

Annie Clark is better known as St. Vincent, a stage-name she reportedly took from the name of the hospital where the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, died. A multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter, St. Vincent has four solo albums to her credit – the eponymous St. Vincent being the latest. In addition, she released in 2012 an album in collaboration with Talking Heads’ David Byrne, Love This Giant. She’s garnered enormous critical acclaim, both for her compositions and singing, as well as her ability to play more than a dozen instruments, including a very versatile guitar, which emit punk-sounding snarls as well as melodic riffs with equal ease.
Annie Clark, known as St. Vincent, garnered acclaim for her singing as well as her ability to play a dozen instruments

Annie Clark, known as St. Vincent, garnered acclaim for her singing as well as her ability to play a dozen instruments

After a stint with the experimental choral rock group The Polyphonic Spree, Annie Clark debuted as St. Vincent with her first album, 2007’s Marry Me, followed by 2009’s Actor and then 2011’s Strange Mercy, all albums that are part of an adventurous exploration, none of them preparing you for what the next will sound like.

All the predecessors of her current album, St. Vincent, are worth listening to and deserve a place in your collection but this, the latest one, is indispensable.

Beginning with the first song Rattlesnake, composed after a real-life experience in the desert, to Huey Newton, written (as she says in an interview with NPR) in an Ambien-induced haze, the album’s 40 minutes show that this is one musician who is resolved to strike a unique path. Besides being a wiz at many instruments, St. Vincent is a brilliant vocalist, equally adept of wowing you with an a capella performance as she is when singing in accompaniment to standard rock music instruments. Talking of which, it must be mentioned that on her latest album, in a departure from her earlier ones, on which horns, guitars and string instruments such as violins are de rigeur, Clark employs, in addition to saxophones and strings, electric guitars, drums and synths. A standout track is Digital Witness, her satirical take on the new connected, shareable and viral digital world. Musically, on this track as well as several others on the album, it is the unexpected twists that a song takes after it begins that makes St. Vincent’s music so stunning.

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