Friday, February 20, 2009

Owls. Owls (Jade Tree, 2001)

"We fall into patterns quickly/ We fall into patterns too quickly."

Chicago's Cap'n Jazz were one of the most influential emo bands of the '90s, a fiercely fractured sob team helmed by the Kinsella brothers, Tim and Mike. Crafting weird and excellent indierock abstractions, toying with the English language like a cat with a mouse and a thesaurus, Cap'n Jazz became heroes of bespectacled year 'round scarf-sporters across the nation. And when they broke up 1995, Cap'n Jazz spawned a handful of other beloved bands like The Promise Ring (fronted by adenoidal Cap'n Jazz guitarist Davey von Bohlen), Joan of Arc (the Kinsellas), and, in 2001, Owls (the Kinsellas again).

Owls proved to be a one-off (so far, anyway) collaboration, featuring Mike Kinsella on drums, Tim Kinsella on vocals, Cap'n Jazzer and Joan of Arcer Sam Zurick on bass, and Victor Villareal on guitar. Hewing to the mad lib, free association lyrical approach and complex, disjointed instrumentation first explored in the preceding decade, Owls released one self-titled, Albini-produced LP, and its a difficult, complicated, but ultimately fulfilling collection of post-modern sonic pastiche. Baudrillard, Derrida, and Lacan walk into a bar, drop some coin into the jukebox, and this is what comes out.

Which sounds horrible, admittedly, but this album is anything but. At first listen, Owls is chaotic, woefully unstructured post-music. But eventually, the ear begins to acclimate itself, and what emerges from the jarring jangle and heavily thudding syncopation is an engaging, almost hypnotic melodicism, bolstered by aggressive, even daring, playing.

Behind the kit, Mike Kinsella is a beat engine, pounding out the spine of each tune with a strength that almost distracts from his incredible agility and sense of timing. Listen to his loose, instinctive technique on What Whorse You Rode Id On (yeah, I know: cute, nerd), casually bellicose and meandering, but perfectly suited to the rest of the tune. "Everyone Is My Friend" employs Kinsella's thundering volleys to prop up everything else, cymbals and snare locked into a fight to the death.

Along with the drums, Victor Villareal's guitar is crucial to this outfit's sound. Like Kinsella, he's clearly got chops, a spidery, every-note-I-know-right-after-the-other style that's initially disorienting but ultimately awesome. Check out the relentless flurry of sounds springing from his frets on "Anyone Can Have a Good Time," or the flinty, tightrope anti-funk of I Want the Quiet Moments of a Party Girl, reined in on a short leash and claustrophobic, all tension and no release.

Throughout the LP, Tim Kinsella's shrill (and ok let's face it pretty effing grating ) voice spouts bits of precious, overeducated, theoretical poesy like, "As much as we are we will not be as much as we are/As much as we are we will not be as much as we are/ Hey Golgotha, do your friends still do their great Ike and Tina karaoke?" When he starts shouting "Unname everyone! Unname everything!" it's almost too much to bear, but not quite. Frankly, the awesome playing is what saves this record from itself, rocking the singer's foot out of his mouth time and again.

Owls shouldn't work, but it does. It's got all the signifiers of a self-involved trainwreck, but it's lifted beyond insufferability by thrilling, ballsy instrumentation. Take time to take it in, and you'll return again and again, giving your ears a work out and your brain a bath.