I've been trying, cold and flu notwithstanding, to write about this record. I've thought about being clever, or sarcastic, or smarmy, or postmodern or whatever. But I can't. that would be doing this record a major disservice. It's simply too good to dismiss that way. And, believe me, the shock of that fact seems even more surprising. I'm personally a little bit freaked about it.
In case you weren't aware, this album is the Owls' debut. Who, you might ask? Well, the Owls used to be Cap'n Jazz, which would become both the Promise Ring and Joan of Arc, through the power of talent. Cap'n Jazz are a band that I have purposefully avoided. It only took me one listen to their cover of "Take on Me" to realize that theirs was not a road I would follow. I guess that's what has saved me from becoming a Total Emo Lost Cause.
Joan of Arc were a band I liked a little bit more. Their first two albums, A Portable Model of and How Memory Works were, are, and forever shall be wonderfully beautiful. Live in Chicago was okay, and the other releases...well, let's just say that we won't waste much time talking about those "records."
Let's just say that Kinsella was trying to be a bit more absurdist with each passing record, until finally the fact that music was irrelevant, if not standing in the way, of Joan of Arc's progress into absurdity.
Be that as it may, I approached this record with more than a healthy dose of skepticism. Not knowing what kind of aesthetic had carried over from that last JOA record, I only thought I was prepared for what was to be found on Owls. Of course, the requisite hilarious song titles were the first thing to be noticed. How can you go wrong with such songs as "I Want the Blindingly Cute to Confide in Me" or "For Nate's Brother Whose Name I Never Knew or Can't Remember?"
On first listen, I was shocked. The record was good! No electronic or sonic wanking off, no attempts to be artier than last week's thou, and certainly not incoherent folky babbling. What you get is a band, a real band, a real live band, who are making music with a real live poet singing up front. Even more so, there's a live feeling to this recording that Joan of Arc or Cap'n Jazz ever had, and that's totally due to the fact that they recorded with the legendary producer GOD Steve Albini. His no-bullshit approach to music really cut out the chafe that probably would have developed. Sure, this sounds like those first two Joan of Arc records, which is good, mind you, but it also sounds nothing like what has come beforehand, when these guys went their separate ways the first time. It's as if the words Kinsella sings in "Everyone Is My Friend" are finally taken to heart. "I know what I have to do and do it. "
Maybe it's the fact that I feel like total crap right now that I realize that this is the second coming of Kinsella, and that all those other records, for good and bad, were the ultimate lead-up to this record. Maybe Kinsella realized that his songs and talent were being lost under the guise of pretense, and that when you record records that make you sound like an idiot savant sans the savant part, you wind up looking like an idiot. Owls is far from that. Is it a new definition of rock and roll, except with jazzy backings, ice-in-tumblers-sounding guitar playing, and abstract lyrics? Damn straight.