When I think of San Francisco -- where I've never been -- I either think of William T. Vollmann's prostitutes...or of The Red House Painters.
When I think of the Red House Painters I am instantly transported back to the early '90s, when I listened to their "Rollercoaster" album over and over again while driving desolate country roads. There's a lot of angsty music in the world, but the Red House Painters weren't just angsty, they were downright MISERABLE. They'd given up on everything. Life was too awful to even scream about, and when lead singer Mark Kozelek DID scream it was like a sucide victim lurching suddenly out of the morgue: oh so dangerous, oh so lost.
Nirvana had nothing on the Red House Painters. These guys could play so slowly that you almost thought they'd stopped. The guitar was painful and alone. The lyrics were sheer poetry without a single misstep. They could make you cry for three minutes or twelve minutes, no matter how short or long the song. And the album covers, enigmatic and beautiful in that 4AD way.
Here's a prime example of how they could turn an already bleak four-minute song into a brilliant nine-minute epic. It's "Katy Song," which starts off simple and gradually descends into chaos.
When I say these things I am talking about the "classic" RHP albums. Kozelek cheered up a bit on the later albums -- musically at least -- and it was difficult for some fans to adjust to the slightly more upbeat sound. Errrr, "more upbeat" as in "not quite so suicidal." Take a look at this spot-on fan video for "Song for a Blue Guitar," the title track from their last 4AD album.
The band broke up, they had label problems, there are solo albums and new projects, blah-blah-blah. These things never last forever. I'd love to find copies of their post-"Blue Guitar" albums but until then, The Red House Painters will always mean San Francisco and sad country roads to me.
Albums to buy: the two (!) self-titled releases, often called "Rollercoaster" and "Bridge," which contain the most finely-crafted of their songs. Albums to avoid: their later work was more loose and spontaneous, but it shouldn't be actively avoided. For fans only: the bonus "Retrospective" CD with Rollercoast/Bridge outtakes and demo versions. There's a reason why those versions didn't appear on the final albums.