It's always interesting to see what happens when a well-regarded musician breaks with his band and goes solo. Who can forget the disaster that was Slash's Snakepit, for instance?
But if going it alone is a gamble, singer Mark Kozelek -- a road-weary veteran of the San Francisco "sadcore" scene -- is just plain reckless. After bagging six albums in nearly 10 years with the Red House Painters, a legendarily depressed urban-folk band, Kozelek went on to release three solo projects. Each record, somehow, seemed to one-up its predecessor, and now Kozelek has formed a new band, Sun Kil Moon, featuring former Red House Painter Anthony Koutsos on drums. Guitarist Tim Mooney is also in the line-up, and seeing as he earned his stripes in American Music Club -- the undisputed champs of sadcore -- it's pretty obvious what SKM has to offer, even before popping in the disc.
But gamble or no gamble, Ghosts of the Great Highway is a triumph: A countrified, idyllic tour de force, backed by a string trio from the San Francisco Conservatory, of all things, and with one of the most unique vocal talents this side of the Atlantic leading the tranquil charge.
Kozelek's voice is truly something special -- think "nasally Bob Dylan," or maybe a more cerebral Mark Knopfler -- but it's the juxtaposition of his natural talent with the Latin-flavored instrumentals of Ghosts that creates a sound that is both pleasingly intimate and faintly exotic. For such an elegant disc, though, it's a bit disappointing that the album's major downfall lies in its noise; a good third of these songs inexplicably crank up the guitar distortion just as the listener should be slipping into a blissful, aurally induced coma, and sadly, the effect is something of an auditory buzzkill. But with a talent as singularly gifted as Kozelek, that's a gamble anyone would be wise to take.