Depending on how you count, Rock 'N' Roll Singer is the second or third solo outing by Mark Kozelek, the songwriting arm of the Red House Painters. Although the RHP's Ocean Beach (1995) and Songs for a Blue Guitar (1996) were dominated by him (the latter completely, in fact), this is the first recording released by Kozelek under his own name. The short review, then, is as follows: Rock 'N' Roll Singer is an EP containing four covers (three of AC/DC, and one -- brace yourself -- of John Denver) and three original songs; its all-acoustic performances flow nearly seamlessly despite the disparity in source and subject matter; it features all-too-brief glimpses of Kozelek's affecting lyrical work, which remains as strong as it's ever been; it's just under half an hour long; and it is, simply put, a stunning piece of work.
Rock 'N' Roll Singer, with its inclusion of three AC/DC songs, calls to mind the Red House Painters' 1994 EP Shock Me, built around a reworking of the Ace Frehley song. However, Kozelek provides a much more radical reading of "Rock 'N' Roll Singer" than Shock Me did of its title cut by slowing the pace to a crawl and rolling out the testosterone-drenched lyrics in a quiet, understated and almost menacing rumble. The result turns Bon Scott's ego-heavy ode to hard-rock stardom into a low meditation on the modest fame that has rightly come to Kozelek for being one of the more interesting songwriters of the 1990s, as well as a dour comment on his protracted and semi-public battle with 4AD over his output with the Red House Painters. When he lets out with a breathy "By the time I was half alive/I knew what I was gonna be," you get the feeling that Kozelek's half alive even as he sings the words; he's earned the right to claim the title.
The other covers -- "You Ain't Got a Hold on Me," "Bad Boy Boogie" and John Denver's "Around and Around" -- are just as interesting, but it's the three evenly spaced original tracks that are the best argument for why Kozelek ought to be a lot more widely appreciated than he is.
"Find Me, Ruben Olivares," the opener, could have fit easily on any Nick Drake album, while "Metropol 47," deceptively melodic and upbeat, is a moving sketch of solitude and the brief connection between two people wandering in unfamiliar territory.
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The EP's standout track, however, is the closing number, "Ruth Marie," a haunting first-person account of a woman aging alone in a nursing home, speaking her summing-up words to her daughters. A lovely song performed utterly without a trace of sentiment or condescension, it's worth the price of the EP by itself; and it ought to encourage those who haven't heard Kozelek to check out his work with the RHP, something much in need of reappraisal.