The saga of Old Ramon is pretty much a story in itself. Although it's no doubt been told in countless reviews, I'll go ahead and give you the short rundown again, just in case you hadn't heard. After the release of the amazing (and one of my favorite albums of all time) of Songs For A Blue Guitar back in 1997, Mark Kozelek headed into the studio with a batch of other musicians and recorded for a couple months one what would become Old Ramon. Originally scheduled for release in 1998, the album was held up time after time due to large corporation buyouts and tons of other logjams. If you were a fan in that time (like me), you pretty much went through the gamut of emotions waiting for the release. At first it was disappointment, then it was frustration, then anger, then pretty much the giving up of hope that the recording would ever see the light of day.
When it was announced that the album had been bought back from the original label and that it would finally be released, it was almost bittersweet for me. Although I was still a big fan of the group, it was over 3 years back that it was originally supposed to come out, and Kozelek had managed to keep himself busy in that time anyway. Not only did he do work on the Shanti compilation, but he produced and recorded songs for the Take Me Home: A Tribute To John Denver release, starred in a movie (Almost Famous) and released two different solo albums of his own (Rock N Roll Singer and What's Next To The Moon).
To say that Kozelek has been busy is sort of an understatement, and he made sure that in the three years since a new album by his group, those wanting to could still pick up new recordings and hear his amazing voice. Old Ramon is different than the work he's been doing lately, though, mainly because it's obviously the work of an entire band. It's a very logical progression if you put it side-by-side with Songs For A Blue Guitar, as it works in a lot of the same ways. Not only is it more layered and rounded than his somewhat sparse solo work, but it clocks in at another epic length. With 10 tracks that clock in at over 70 minutes, it sags just a bit in places, but it will be more than satisfactory for fans of the group and contains a couple tracks that will no doubt go down as classics for the group.
The album starts out on a bit of a light foot (despite the misleading split-second blast at the beginning of the track) with the track "Wop-A-Din-Din." It's a pretty little ode written from Kozelek to his cat that works with very simple guitarwork and minimal percussion for just the right light feel. The second track "Byrd Joel" moves along with only an acoustic guitar and Kozelek on vocals for a minute or so before the rest of the band comes in and provides a nice solid fill. Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes long, the very next song "Void" goes on for just a bit too long, but if the somewhat languid pace of the song drifts off a bit, the very next song (the also epic-length of "Between Days") shakes things off and rocks. Perhaps the loudest track that the group has ever done, it layers on the guitar and crunches without being overwhelming.
The rest of the album mixes things up a bit as well, but things never quite pick up the pace quite as much. "Cruiser" lopes along as Kozelek sings about a short plane ride, while "Golden" (a track written in tribute to John Denver) works a touch of subtle electric guitar in behind an acoustic one to give things a slight edge. The album closer of "Kavita" drifts along at a slowcore pace and ends things in a quiet, beautiful fashion for the group. It recalls older work by the group more than any other track on the disc, but serves as a very nice finish to the album that most probably thought they'd never hear. While it doesn't have quite the emotional punch that Songs For A Blue Guitar has (for me at least), it's still a very solid release for the group and I for one hope that they forge on with more releases in the future.