Polyvinyl Records, 2014
Review by Kent Manthie
March 12, 2014: the new Owls album is finally out! What a great thing to happen. I’m listening to it right now and I am absolutely blown away by the intricate arrangements, the strict structures, the bombardier bass, the steady-beat-with-a-jazz-kick-to-it drums and the magnificent guitar work.
So much has happened since 2000, when Owls came out: LOTS of Joan of Arc releases, Mike’s work with Owen, plus Tim and sometime-JOA-members did other projects like Friend/Enemy, Make Believe, Love of Everything and Ghosts & Vodka; each one having something unique about it so as not to just sound as though they’re all just more Joan of Arc albums under different names. Just a few months back Tim worked with LeRoy Bach of Wilco and Angel Olsen on a great musical interpretation of poet Marvin Tate’s words, entitled, Tim Kinsella Sings the Songs of Marvin Tate by LeRoy Bach Featuring Angel Olsen (see below for the review of that release). So when the news came that Owls were really doing it – there’d been talk for a while about a possible “reunion” of Owls and an album of new material, but when it became a fact that it was in the works, it was being recorded, etc. the excitement began to build.
Constantly busy, Tim and company are not ones to rest on their laurels, not for long; just last year Joan of Arc released a six-song CD, Testimonium Songs, a soundtrack of sorts to Chicago dance outfit Every House Has a Door. The project stemmed from a seminal work by Charles Reznikoff, Testimony, a record of courtroom transcripts of witness and victim testimonies from criminal and civil cases involving labor unrest and workplace negligence between 1885 and 1915 that Reznikoff turned into verse. The result, for Joan of Arc, was this brilliant, but rather short, work in a similar vein to 2011’s Life Like. Likewise with Owen: Mike Kinsella’s been busy juggling family life and his musical work and has released a fair number of Owen CDs, my personal favorite being I Do Perceive, which came out in November of 2004.
This is only the second Owls album. Their self-titled debut came out in 2000. But it’s not as if we’ve all been waiting this whole time with nothing in between – there’s been myriad Tim Kinsella projects: the many Joan of Arc albums, the awesome Friend/Enemy album, 10 Songs, three Make Believe albums: two full-length CDs and one EP. But when you play the first Owls album, from 2000 and then play the brand new one, Two, right afterward, you can hear a very close resemblance. They’ve, of course, grown in that 13 ½ years or so, but what they’ve managed to do here is nothing short of amazing. This is definitely one of the best albums of 2014 and we’re only into the second week of the third month of this year. Still, I can just tell that there will be no other album that will surpass Two in terms of capability, honesty, brilliance and originality.
Joining Tim and Mike Kinsella is guitarist Victor Villarreal, who most recently, played on Joan of Arc’s 2011 Steve Albini-produced Life Like, which was a slight departure from the typical JOA album: it was succinct, it had that trademark Albini touch to it, it was terse and to the point and mostly straight-ahead, no frills, unlike some of Joan of Arc’s more experimental albums, such as Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain or In Rape Fantasy and Terror Sex We Trust or even the album that gets talked about a lot as being a landmark album in the use of the studio as instrument: The Gap. Victor also was in the forerunner of Joan of Arc: Cap’n Jazz, with Tim and Mike as well as Davey von Bohlen, who later, went his own way and formed The Promise Ring.
Sam Zurick and Mike Kinsella make for a great rhythm section – Sam on bass and Mike on drums. Mike is a terrific drummer. He’s also a remarkably great guitarist. But any way you slice it, this album has much promise to it. This album was not as easy as it was 13 years ago, when it only took these guys 5 days to record the still-legendary self-titled debut album. On Two it was a bit more complicated and it wasn’t easy to get all the individual egos to connect all the time, but when they did and when the whole thing was finished it was worth it all. This is a work that is born out of four strong characters, four individuals who each have great talent.
It’s too hard to pick out a favorite song on here, they’re all so dazzling. A couple of honorable mentions, though, would go out to “Ancient Stars Seed…”, “It Collects Itself…” “I’m Surprised…” and the closing track, “A Drop of Blood…”
Ever since I first heard that Two had been recorded and was ready to go, I’ve been waiting and waiting for it to finally hit the streets. Well, this afternoon I got my first go round with it and I already know that I’ll be listening to this over and over again. I do hope that any tour dates they play will take them out to the West Coast, especially San Diego, so I can see them, get some good photos and write it up for you on a review here. For now, though – get your hands on this masterpiece. -KM.