King of Whys
Polyvinyl Records, 2016
Review by Kent Manthie
In contrast to the music that other Kinsella-based bands (Tim and Mike), like Joan of Arc, Owls, Friend/Enemy,etc, Mike Kinsella, who’s been making solo albums under the name Owen since his eponymously titled debut in 2001, has been using this vehicle to express various emotions, lamenting past relationships, as well as, with a minimal musical set-up: acoustic guitar, drums, bass, piano with the occasional horn here or strings there. The Owen persona gives Mike a chance to do things a little different. As opposed to the alt-pop or the (NOT)-emo of Joan of Arc, etc, which are usually awash in sounds and keep pushing the boundaries, re: lyrics as well as instrumentation, Owen’s albums are basically Mike, his acoustic guitar, his drums and if there’s a bass needed, somewhere, he’ll play that too.
Owen’s music is painted with introspective, reflective, personal lyrics, backed up with, an acoustic guitar and drums, sometimes an electric guitar will make its way onto a part of a song, e.g., a melancholy solo that an electric, sans distortion, can articulate well.
One thing that stands out when listening to King of Whys is the “bigger” sound. That’s due to the addition of session musicians in on the recording. Something which is a new thing – for Owen, that is, not for Kinsella, though, who’s played, along with brother Tim, in a smattering of Joan of Arc albums, Owls, Friend/Enemy and, of course, the more Owen-like project, American Football, who only put out one album, but that one album has really gotten around, it’s certainly found an audience out there, and not, all the time, anyway, for just American Football, but for fans of all things Kinsella. Similar to what Owls did back in 2014: they put out their second album, also after a 15-year gap from when their self-titled debut came out, in 2001. What was quite impressive as well as a delight to see that, despite their not having had recorded anything (even though the lineup included three people who would play continual roles, coming and going, with Joan of Arc, so, it wasn’t like they hadn’t worked together at all over these years).
2014’s Two was a brilliant album. It was as if Owls, when they got together to play; picked up their instruments, just picked up right where they left off.
Anyway, so, later that year and into 2015, the trio that was American Football re-formed and went on a small tour, playing selected cities. That proved to be quite successful and showed that Kinsella (and others in this same, Chicago indie scene) has a solid fan base, consisting of people you’d run into at an American Football reunion gig, an Owen show and a Joan of Arc show; one possible explanation as to why American Football’s recent mini-tour was so interesting is that convergence of fans, many of whom love Mike’s other projects: Owen, Joan of Arc (who, alas, has been quite idle of late) as well as Owls, Make Believe, Cap’n Jazz (the early incarnation of what would soon blossom into great things; the band that started it all) and Ghosts & Vodka, to name the most obvious.
Having reviewed every album Owen has recorded since late 2004’s I Do Perceive, followed by At Home With Owen, then New Leaves and others, I can say with surety that King of Whys has reignited the spark I originally felt when listening to I Do Perceive. Long after I’d already written that review, I was still, regularly listening to I Do Perceive – I remember, still, that one “wow” moment: that certain hook or sound or even a less tangible, je ne sais quois that, whether it happens on the first listen or whether it takes several listens (don’t expect this to occur with just anything; it has to have some sort of connection to styles, genres, formats, etc.that you’re already into), you’ll suddenly have this epiphany; like a spark flashing in your brain. You suddenly realize that you have, as far as you’re concerned, anyway, a winner; so it was with I Do Perceive. I was hooked. I started listening to it just about every day. Next, when I learned of Owen’s next album, I was really excited; I couldn’t wait to hear what was coming next; what did come next was At Home With Owen, which was another reflective, personal album, the songs are wonderful, well-structured and the lyrics, again, reflect much of Mike Kinsella’s personal baggage, for which Owen is, I’d guess, a cathartic vehicle for dealing with certain things in his past. I’m not going to go too deeply into this, i.e., I’m not going to psychoanalyze Mike and interpret them. That job is for the listener: it is you who give it meaning, just by playing it – think of that as a kind of koan to meditate on.
The King of Whys finds Owen where we’d expect, but this time around, he used, for one thing, some outside help (this one wasn’t recorded in his old bedroom at his mom’s house). S. Carey, of Bon Iver, helped out on The King of Whys. Bon Iver’s connection to Mike was that Bon Iver opened up for American Football during their reunion tour, recently. This album also marks the first time Owen has worked with both an outside producer as well as a backing set of musicians. The result? In my opinion, it definitely ranks up among Owen’s best work.
I’m not alone in my thinking that The King of Whys shows Owen going in a slightly different direction, more musicality, bigger sounds, but Mike’s beautiful, reflective lyrics are still present. I’ve read some other write-ups on this album that also mention what a powerful album this is. Some have even gone as far as calling it Owen’s best album yet. I’ve listened to King of Whys several times, but I’ll have to listen some more and focus, to be able to best judge, IMO, the veracity of that claim.
Hungry for more? For details about the CD and/or to purchase a copy, just go to: https://www.polyvinylrecords.com/artist/owen. Hope you like it as much as I do. -KM.