Down Colorful Hill

Red House Painters - Down Colorful Hill | Sub Pop Mega Mart

Red House Painters, led by guitar player and vocalist Mark Kozelek (now operating under the name Sun Kil Moon), began in 1992 with Down Colorful Hill; the album is a slow, melancholic one very definitive of their genre, which some have dubbed “slowcore”: a subgenre of alternative/indie rock that focuses on slow tempos and soft instrumentation. Down Colorful Hill was vital in establishing Red House Painters as a worthwhile and innovative indie rock band, and the album has defined the band as a cornerstone of the genre ever since with its dragging melodies and solemn notation. 

24, the first song on the album, starts and finishes with an acoustic guitar like many of the entries on Down Colorful Hill; a slow and repetitive riff takes its sweet time gently introducing the tune and inviting Kozelek to speak some words on maturity in his characteristic autobiographical prose: “We’re not kids on swing sets on the blacktop,” “at 15 I thought I’d have it down by 16,” and “24 keeps breathing in my face” are all lines that demonstrate his uncertainty and fear of aging, despite the fact that he was only 25 when the album was released. Like the guitarwork, the drumming (Anthony Koutsos) is very subdued and gentle, including not a single hit that isn’t absolutely necessary and filling with two or three snare raps at most; truly, Koutsos embodies the “less is more” mentality so alien to young and energetic rock drummers. The bass (Jerry Vessel) follows the examples set by the other instruments, and sometimes even sustains notes for bars at a time to accentuate the almost frustrating slowness of the song.

Medicine Bottle is a much faster feeling song however, and starts with a drum click and subtle distortion screech before heading into a bassier and more drum-heavy groove than the previous song. Eighth notes on the ride, constant guitar strumming, and a more prominent bass line may make this song easier to listen to than 24; it has a solid and consistent feel that, despite lasting over ten minutes, never gets old. The instruments sullenly tease the chorus a couple bars before letting Kozelek preside over the initial verse, which he does by speaking about himself (as always) in sad and longing tones. The chorus appears again, this time accompanied by vocals that give it a more defined tone – this definition extends to the next verse, which has a much more “sing-song” feel than the spoken-word vocals we’ve been getting used to. The return of the chorus, a third time and just as fresh, precedes the lyric-heavy bridge section; this section in particular opens up the meaning of the song: something’s not right with Kozelek’s love life. Apparently he’s having some issues with his lady, because he’s “building walls higher than the both of us” and should “try living life instead of hiding in the bedroom”: clearly, Kozelek has depression, an affliction that is crippling in the real world but quite a condiment in the musical one. I do believe that without Kozelek’s own personal problems, the album could not have been as good as it is; he is the primary songwriter, after all. His lyricism and imagery, supported by the restrained instrumentation of the album, add a flair that is not only the cherry on top, but the milkshake itself. In a genre like this, the composition of the poetry is just as important as the actual playing of the instruments, and I wouldn’t pick anyone other than Kozelek to carry that burden. Medicine Bottle has a lot of repetition, and by association, a lot of nuance: every verse is the same but different, whether it be the cadence of the vocals or grace notes on the strings. A truly solemn piece Medicine Bottle is, yet the next tune is anything but. 

Down Colorful Hill is the title track of the album, and features a more prominent kit presence than the other songs by way of a snare roll introducing and supporting the whole rhythmic tone of the song, something very welcome to a drummer such as myself. This song is a real gem, with cryptic but meaningful lyricism and a similar but less nuanced repetition than Medicine Bottle; it also carries a tone of “hopeful melancholy” that I always recognise as very difficult to pull off, so props to Kozelek and his crew for mastering such a deep and complex idea with such consistency and grace. This song, similarly to its predecessor, is over ten minutes long; normally, a composition that long should likewise scale the number of distinct sections, but Down Colorful Hill has less than five (I’m being generous by counting small changes as entirely different sections). Somehow, it’s alright. I don’t mind hearing these near-identical verses and unchanging choruses as much as I thought I would, and oddly enough, it reminds me of the progressive death metal band Meshuggah. Meshuggah, despite having exponentially more complex and varied sections in their songs, also often hold sections for minutes at a time; such repetition really tests the listener and shows a great amount of confidence in the band’s own songwriting, something I also see here. However, after about the six minute mark, the song takes a relatively sharp change with the addition of minor distortion and some interesting cliffhanger-y phrasing, both accompanied by background drones. After this section, there is a return to the initial snare roll and guitar riff, but of course with added instrumental and vocal nuance; I did not expect any change when returning to the intro, which says a lot about this song.

The intro to Japanese to English is surprisingly captivating for being so simple, hosting the drums, headed by an open hi-hat on the upbeat, the guitar, carrying a riff as always, and the bass, supporting with sparse but vital pulses towards the end of each bar. The vocals are nothing to write home about at this point, as we know what to expect and indeed receive such drawn out and almost excessively melancholic vocals as predicted. The bridge sees the ride bell replace the open hi-hat on the upbeat and the bass add a more syncopated feeling pulse on the “e of four” of each bar, but other than that not much change occurs. However, the chorus is pretty dang interesting – at least relative to the established feel of the album – for its sixteenth note hi-hat groove and its more active strumming riff, as well as an interesting entrance from the bridge and exit to, well, the bridge again, which is where the song ends. Last thing I’ll note about this song is that when Kozelek says “Japanese to English and English to Japanese” in the bridge, he says the last word as Japan-ese, and not “Japanese” as we Americans usually say it. It totally threw me off the first time, but when I realized that in order to fit the meter of the song such syllabic transgressions need be perpetrated, I accepted it for what it was (but that doesn’t make it any less weird to hear).

Surprising enough, Lord Kill the Pain is just about the most upbeat song on the album. Crashing in after a guitar walkdown, the drums excitedly smack a snare on two and four and the guitars, both electric and acoustic, strum away in front of a nice, happy bass line. But, of course, everything is not as it seems, and the song is understandably one of those upbeat-sounding but depressingly-lyricised irony songs; personally, I do not like that idea unless it has a real reason to be that way, and even though I know I can contrive a reason for this song to do such a thing, I won’t. I will, however, talk about the lyrics themselves more so than the music (despite the fact that this is my favorite song on the album) because there is quite a lot to cover. Quickly, my favorite lines are definitely the out-of-nowhere “kill my girlfriend and kill my best friend Samkill my neighbors and all my family too” if only because I think it’s a hilarious non-sequitur, but other lines struck me as well such as “let me hear the whining sound of a pig drown” and “let me see the burning down of my hometown“; these lines are pretty edgy, obviously, but in all honesty I find them very original and I did not see them coming at all, despite being preceded by open supplication for mass murder. Musically, it’s a shame that I won’t spend much time therein because there are a lot of fun and interesting ideas floating around that still manage to maintain the upbeat feel of the song.

Lastly, a love song – not romantic, but fraternal. Michael is about Kozelek’s titular best friend, and is really, really charming. I absolutely adore this song, and even though it’s not my favorite, I think it’s the best one on the album; the nostalgia, the singing, the laid back but appropriate instrumentation, everything just comes together. In the interest of proper reverence to the piece, I will abstain from discussing the lyrics and encourage the reader to listen to the song on his or her own time to fully appreciate the scope of the lyrical composition. Musically, however, most of the song is traditional strumming and drum support which, at this point, is getting old, but the chorus (or post-chorus?) has chord changes that hit the spot, scratching an itch I didn’t even know I had but now can’t stop itching. These strong chord twists happen at the end of each phrase and man, they are really well chosen. My final thoughts on the song are that it powerfully ends Down Colorful Hill and takes it into a new, less depressing direction that allows the listener a guilt-free disengagement from the album.

Down Colorful Hill is one of the least-metallic albums I may ever review, and maybe that’s for the best; sticking to what I know, while falsely indicative of a narrow taste in music, seems to yield deeper and more entertaining reviews in my opinion. Of course, being an art, the value of these critiques are completely subjective to the audience, but I still take into account my own reflections and opinions on what I write. That being said, I thoroughly and consistently enjoy this album even when not in a mood of nostalgia or melancholy, and the musical and lyrical content stands on its own as what I would deem objectively interesting. Oh, and I forgot to mention that I really like the album art.

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