I've been a big fan of the Red House Painters ever since hearing their self-titled 1993 release. At the time, I was a huge 4AD fan and since I still hadn't heard the group with the awesome sepia-toned cover art, I decided to take a chance. After having purchased all of the albums that the group has released, I can honestly say that they are one of the most consistent ones out their. The backbone of the group (and main player on Songs For A Blue Guitar) has always been San Francisco dweller Mark Kozelek and I'm amazed that he doesn't have a larger following by now.
Songs For A Blue Guitar is actually kind of interesting in that it's the first release by the group (or man, whatever you prefer) that isn't on the 4AD label. Apparently, when Kozelek turned in his tapes of the music for the album to the label, they didn't like the style and he decided to go elsewhere with it. Really, I can't see what they saw wrong with it. While it does break in tradition a bit with the slow-core releases of old RHP, it's just as amazing as any of the past releases and probably even better.
The disc starts out with "Have You Forgotten," and the song is the epitomy of what is so great about the group. Although it's just Kozelek and an acoustic guitar, it's catchier and more interesting than a great majority of songs out their today. The lyrics are both instantly identifiable and the simple guitar instrumentation provides the perfect backing. The second song ("Songs For A Blue Guitar") breaks with tradition somewhat in its use of a slide guitar and the duet on vocals with a female singer. Things get even a little more strange on the 12-minute epic "Make Like Paper" where Kozelek uses an electric guitar (and dare I say, rocks?). Once again, though, it doesn't at all feel like it's stretching at all.
Like almost all of his albums, this disc has a couple of cover tracks, and like usual they end up sounding much better than the originals. The best of these is the amazing "All Mixed Up" by Ric Ocasek (who probably could have never realized that he wrote such a beautiful song). The Cars version simply cannot compare to the delicate, yet powerful version that Kozelek has put together. Paul McCartney gets a complete overhaul as well, as his "Silly Love Songs" is turned into the almost 11-minute electric-guitar fueled piece that manages to carry about 10 times the weight of the original.
Basically, if I had to throw out all my CDs except for 5, this would most definitely make the cut. As a group, the Red House Painters have never let me down with an album, and this one only raises the bar a little more. I've played it for several other people in the time that I've owned it and all of them (I'm not kidding) went out and personally bought a copy for themselves after hearing it. It falls somewhere between rock, folk, and country, but also is really in a category all it's own. One of the highest recommendations I can give.