I've been a long-time fan of Mark Kozelek in just about every single musical project that he's undertaken. His early music in Red House Painters helped me through some rather rough periods of my life and his work since then has all been at the very least quite good. If nothing else, the self-titled (rollercoaster) release made me feel I wasn't alone in my depression, while Songs For A Blue Guitar still ranks as one of my top 10 favorite releases ever. When I heard that Kozelek was going to be doing an entire album of Modest Mouse covers, I was hopeful, but somewhat cautious.
It's true that he's done cover albums before and they've turned out find. What's Next To The Moon seemed to wring emotions out of the music of AC/DC that I never thought possible, and over the years he's done amazing covers of both Simon And Garfunkel's "I Am A Rock" and even a weird version of the Star Spangled Banner. Unfortunately, Tiny Cities seems to be one of the first major stumbles for Kozelek, and there are several reasons for it.
The first is that instead of adding some sort of urgency or pulling out some unique quality from the songs themselves, most of his reworkings of Modest Mouse tracks completely sterilize the originals into rather mush-mouthed coffee-house covers. Kozelek picks songs from every single album from the group, and while I applaud his choices, his actual performances are pretty narrow in scope (usually limited to repeated guitar phrases and some sort of slight melody and timing change with the vocals). In fact, other than a couple tracks, it doesn't even sound like a Sun Kil Moon release, as only a few tracks feature much more than acoustic guitar and vocals. Instead, the release limps by with weepy covers of tracks like "Jesus Christ Was An Only Child" and "Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes" (the worst offender on the album) that suck most of the interesting qualities from the originals.
All of the above said, there are a couple standouts, including the full-band "Dramamine" (that keeps the woozy feel of the original and actually builds on it) and "Grey Ice Water" (where Kozelek duets with Emily Herron over a march-step snare and some pretty guitars). Out of the subdued pieces, the closer of "Ocean Breathes Salty" Kozelek manages to pull the ultra-melancholy out of the lyrics and set them to a subdued arrangement that makes the track his own (like the best of his covers). It was a valiant try, but Tiny Cities just doesn't have a lot going for it unless you're a die-hard fan of Kozelek.