Other People’s Songs
Polyvinyl Records, 2014
2014 has been a fruitful year for Mike Kinsella: earlier this year the one and only album he made with American Football, an eponymous CD, originally released in 1999, was re-released as a 15th anniversary commemoration. Another project Mike’s been a part of, Owls, released their second album since their 2001 self-titled debut. The new Owls album was simply titled Two. I had already been a big fan of the original Owls album when Two came out and, as I love Owls, I really didn’t know what to expect from a new Owls album, 13 years later. The one difference, in this case, though, is that the members of Owls have all been busy in various other musical projects, so it was just a matter of getting the right combination together and writing new material. When I did finally hear Two, I was so amazed, it just blew my mind. It’s really hard to say that one is better than the other, but I can say, without a doubt, that Two is one of 2014’s best releases, by far!
Between working with other bands and on various projects, Mike has a solo venture he’s named Owen, which is a much more personal endeavor. Starting in 2001, with Owen, Kinsella’s made eight full-length Owen albums, including this new release, which hits the streets on November 28th; aside from that, he’s also put out two solo EPs (the ep, and The Seaside EP). My personal favorite of all those is the one he released in November, 2004, entitled, I Do Perceive, which was followed up by my other favorite, At Home With Owen. After those two CDs and a bit of a hiatus from Owen, Kinsella came back, in 2009, with New Leaves, followed by Ghost Town in 2011 and then L’ami du Peuple, last year. Those three albums reflected a change; they were portraits of an artist who, as usual, with his Owen project, put his personal life on his sleeve, so to speak. All of the Owen albums have that quality to them: they are introspective, self-aware songs that explore the inner depths of Kinsella’s consciousness. It was around the time Ghost Town came out, or just before it, that Mike and his wife, Ryan, had a daughter. This new experience seemed to bring about a different sort of direction to his lyrics – no more was he the free-spirit who had some aching confessions that were peppered with wry wit and clever verbiage; now his music was reflecting the new phase of his life: that of new father and happily married man, settling down for a life of familial bliss.
So, mellowed out even more by fatherhood, Mike had some new emotions that were welling up inside of him and that was the basis for a lot of what went into Ghost Town. I think L’ami du Peuple was more of a looking back at his life at a younger time, different phases, et cetera. It seems like he was watching his younger self from a new perspective and it gave the songs a more melancholy touch.
However, on this album, a brand new CD, to be released on November 28, Other People’s Songs, Mike takes on eight covers by eight different bands. Listening to his interpretations of them and comparing them to the original versions, you notice that he’s taken these songs and made them all his own. The album starts out with a track by Lungfish, a band that runs in the same circles as the Polyvinyl gang, entitled “Descender”. That is followed by a cut from a band that goes back to the late 80s-early 90s: Blake Babies, the band from which Juliana Hatfield came and went, going on to be a relative success as a solo artist through the rest of the 90s. The album’s vision, the style and tone of the songs are pure Owen: soft, driven, slow; for instance, one of the covers is an old All song, “Just Like Them”, but don’t expect to hear any “skate-core”, Owen has re-worked it to fit his own style; it’s the same with Depeche Mode’s “Judas” and Against Me!’s “Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart”.
In fact, you can listen to the whole album and go through it, song by song and finish it off, thinking that it’s just another Owen album, full of Mike Kinsella-penned tunes. Well, of course, he didn’t write these songs, that was the whole concept behind the album, but he sure did re-arrange them to come out with the “Owen” sound.
Regardless, though, of his arranging the songs to fit his persona and not merely aping the originals, the tunes on Other People’s Songs reflect some of the music Kinsella favored, no doubt, in the late 80s and the 90s, while growing up. Even some of the more recent works he covers showcase his affection for contemporaries and music that continues to inspire and influence him. By that I mean his cover of the Lungfish track, “Descender” and “Forget Me” by The Promise Ring, a band that features Davey von Bohlen, an ex-bandmate of Kinsella’s from the early days, the forerunner of bands like Owls, Joan of Arc and The Promise Ring, Cap’n Jazz.
By taking a break from the songwriting duties for this album and focusing instead on interpretations of some of the music he enjoys has made a difference in the way Other People’s Songs has turned out. Unlike the quieter, deeper thinking of L’ami du Peuple, I think Owen has purged some of the melancholy, angst-ridden, self-reflective mien of that album, as well as Ghost Town and emerged with a more celebratory, carefree work which seems to have lifted a weight from Mike’s shoulders. Here’s hoping that Mike can be inspired again, by the music he grew up listening to and use it to craft a new mold for his next Owen album. -KM.