On paper, Sun Kil Moon’s Tiny Cities may seem like a puzzling step for Mark Kozelek. Modest Mouse and Sun Kil Moon seemingly have nothing in common—one writes tense, anguished, often drug-fueled yelps while the other writes songs so gorgeous and accessible that frontman Mark Kozelek’s Red House Painters famously got chosen for a Gap ad. Yet Tiny Cities, a carefully chosen album of Modest Mouse covers, succeeds beautifully in stripping down the anger and theatrics of the originals, turning them into a love letter to Modest Mouse. It’s all strictly acoustic guitars and string arrangements here, with the occasional brush drum thrown in. Only “Convenient Parking” comes close to the original’s tempo and melody.
It’s also worth noting that the only song from Modest Mouse’s breakout album, Good News For People Who Love Bad News (an album strangely beloved by indie kids, NPR and football stadiums alike) is “Ocean Breathes Salty.” In my mind, this highlights the only possible link between the two bands—with the exception of Good News, both bands have pretty much flown under the radar for their entire careers. “Ocean Breathes Salty” is the best illustration of how the songs change in Kozelek’s hands—while Isaac Brock practically sneers the refrain “You wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death?” When Kozelek sings it, it changes from an accusation to something bordering on elegy—his voice practically cracks on the word “why.”
In less capable hands, an acoustic album of Modest Mouse covers could have easily turned into a gimmick—dinner-party Muzak versions of the original material, dumbed-down versions for people who still think Modest Mouse is a bit too edgy for their tastes. Instead, the songs are taken on a strange and beautiful journey, turned into hushed, gorgeous campfire stories that still capture the urgency of the originals.
You should also check out Mark Kozelek’s collection of Bon Scott-era AC/DC reinterpretations on What’s Next to the Moon.