Owen / Into It. Over It.
by Chad Jewett
Mike Kinsella and Evan Weiss have, respectively, developed two of the most unique and compelling signature sounds in modern emo. Kinsella managed this by wrangling the dense guitar tangles of past (and future) projects like American Football and Owls into tight yet expansive pop forms, so that a song like “Blues To Black” from the terrific L’Ami Du Peuple is at once layered in complexity and immediately striking. Albums like 2006’s career-best At Home With Owen turned Kinsella’s guitar math into something delicate and ornate, and at its best, poignantly cinematic, a hushed, beautiful palette. Weiss, for his part, has worked towards progressively clearer and brighter versions of the bounding, conversational emo-pop that has defined Into It. Over It., whether it comes in the form of austere acoustic ballads or the vivid, elastic bursts of 2013’s Intersections. It’s the fact that both Owen and Into It. Over It. are two of a precious few contemporary post-hardcore projects with an easily pictured aesthetic (you can hear what one of their songs sounds like in your head without much difficulty) that makes their shared split, released by Polyvinyl Records, something more than a likable pairing. Rather, it’s a study in what makes both bands work.
Kinsella, for his part, continues to ply the moving, embattled optimism of L’Ami on the EP-opening “Poison Arrows”, a bed of sparkling, silvery acoustic guitars and a few painterly dots of piano set beneath the kind of confessional self-analysis that has only grown more compelling the longer the Owen singer/songwriter has worked at it. When the song, halfway through, expands with more keys, harmonies, and a steady, insistent beat, you glimpse Kinsella further embracing the possibilities that come with making Owen songs that are bigger, more powerfully confident in the kind of sudden crescendos that made past successes like “Use Your Words” so affecting. For a songwriter so adept at nighttime whispers, there’s not much in today’s indie scene that captivates quite like those moments when Kinsella raises his voice. Later, Owen’s cover of Into It. Over It’s “Anchor” further invests in a more muscular approach to Kinsella’s careful arrangements. As with his rustling cover of The Promise Ring’s “Forget Me” on last year’s underrated Other People’s Songs Kinsella has fun with the prospect of whittling down his knack for light-touch ornament into something fleet and effervescent. The effect is charming and ebullient, Owen’s midwestern rumination reworked as breathless pop-punk.
Indeed, to some extent it would appear that both Kinsella and Weiss have sought out shared middle ground in re-working each other’s songs. If Kinsella has at least one foot in Into It. Over It’s territory by presenting “Anchor” as an artisanal take on melodic punk, then Weiss places his version of Owen’s “Poor Souls” somewhere between the original’s alt-country sparkle and the droll intimacy of Into It’s quieter moments. Yet Weiss’s approach is also to bathe the song in studio-as-instrument decoration, washing his flexible voice in fuzzy haze, adding whirring reverse loops and bubbling electric piano, a more distinctly experimental take on the baroque touches of Owen at its best. As Weiss completes his next album with the similarly detail-oriented Jonathan Vanderslice, one finds oneself hoping this approach sticks – it works beautifully for the wit and pathos of Weiss’s stories.
Elsewhere, “Local Language” keeps some of the bouncing energy and outsized melodies of Intersections, the songs thrumming acoustic guitars making even more distinct the subtle Paul Simon aura running beneath that album’s rhythm-heavy short-story pop. There’s a faint trace of mid-career Beatles psychedelia in the bending riff that enters mid-song, and more of the stylish fog that makes Weiss’s take on “Poor Souls” the EP’s highlight. Somehow the song feels more specific, more insistent than the easily-liked Intersections, as if, by embracing a bit of modernistic difficulty, Weiss has cracked the code to making all of this stuff stick a little better. Ultimately, you spend the EP’s 11 minutes slightly incredulous at how these two songwriters manage to perpetually stay atop the balance beam. The trick is that it’s just as gorgeous when they lose their footing. Indeed, few contemporary songwriters are as good as Kinsella and Weiss at making something lovely from the struggle of keeping it together.