I just published this review on Blog Critics:
Owls is comprised of all the members of seminal emo legends Cap’n Jazz, except Davey von Bohlen. They took emo from the underground punk of Rites Of Spring and Fugazi, and mainstreamed it as an indie genre. In other incarnations Cap’n Jazz members have been the driving force behind Joan Of Arc, Owen, American Football, The Promise Ring, Ghosts and Vodka, Friend/Enemy, Sky Corvair, Make Believe, Everyoned, One Up Downstairs, Sharks & Seals, etc.
These guys are prolific!
At the core of Owls are brothers Tim and Mike Kinsella, on vocals and drums respectively (not joined by other brother Nate, who they collaborate with as Joan Of Arc). This context is important because the unique lyricism of Tim Kinsella spirals out of new album, Two.
Two follows ‘cold on the heels’ of their eponymous 2001 debut. A record that so comfortably pushed the boundaries of music at the time, that even today it sounds like a medley of intercepted broadcasts from the future. Multi-part songs that flowed into and over each other, interweaving sometimes comfortably, often dissonantly, and all recorded in just 5 days.
The new album took considerably longer to record, although by no means all of the intervening 13 years, and it packs an immediate punch with Victor Villareal’s muscular guitar on opener, “Four Works Of Art”. While effects fly around the main riff, this is straight forward rock guitar, with a comparatively simple time signature. When combined with the vocal however the ambiance shifts to a sublime or unnerving drone mantra.
The math rock lurch that defined the sound of their debut is gently updated on second track (and first single) “I’m Surprised”. The album unfolds from here like a screwed up ball of paper, rather than an origami swan. “The Lion” and “Why Oh Why” sputter, twist and jerk with the same anxious rhythms seen on Owls
If you throw this paper ball out of a window, you know it will travel a lot further and better than any origami. Tracks like “Ancient Stars Seed” exemplify how the band coalesce to create utterly unique, bizarre and beguiling music that you’ll still be listening to in a decade (especially if you liked the original Owls). Both their albums on first inspection could easily be written off as an artless scrunching together of ideas, but with closer inspection, every fold and shadow cast becomes more exciting, inscrutable and ingenious.
To compare this music to anything you really only have 4 options:
- Straight-forward homage, such as This Town Needs Guns, Foals, Shapes Like Dinosaurs, etc.
- Other Kinsella projects (see article intro).
- Distant genre cousins like Minus The Bear or Modest Mouse.
- Or fellow Chicago scenesters like Tortoise, etc.
If you haven’t heard any of this collective’s output before, think ramshackle math rock improv with vocals along the lines of Thom Yorke, but more forceful, guitars that noodle a la Don Caballero, and drums played by Jandek as he falls gracelessly but determinedly from a skyscraper. So probably easiest to just have a listen.
I saw Joan Of Arc play in London a couple of years ago, and they played a couple of Owls tracks. Judging by the crowd’s reaction, Two is going to be a popular album with their fans as it capitalises on all the strengths of Owls, while taking some bold steps forward.
The ten tracks on Two don’t sound as dangerous or avant as those on Owls’ debut album did in 2001, but they follow on from the foundations laid by that album, and make a sense and coherence to the output of this particular group of people, under this band name. If you like the output of the Kinsella brotherhood, this is one of their best, and an album you’ll be listening to for years to come.
I’ll let Tim Kinsella have the last word talking about a line from “Ancient Stars Seed”:
The line “We’ve never had nice stuff” feels good to sing because we really are still a grubby foursome with broken equipment and no money and I see these shitty young bands every day with pedal boards and no ideas.
Two is available on CD and vinyl from Polyvinyl Records.