Other People’s Songs
by Chad Jewett
Mike Kinsella has long been undervalued as an arranger. Part of this has do to with how consistency gets taken for granted; Kinsella has put out seven full-length albums under his Owen moniker and only 2009’s Ghost Town dips below an A average. Owen songs simply work a certain kind of nicely-appointed, pastoral weariness that belie their own careful crafting. The albums are so easy to enjoy and digest that they’re greatness has become routine. But then one considers, say, the gossamer harmonies that halo the beginning of “Bad News”, the buzzing synthesizer that brightens “Good Friends With Bad Habits”, or the taut, sinewy guitar solo that announces the climax of “A Bird In Hand” and you start to realize that Kinsella’s confident grip on the spaces and moods of Owen also extend to sounds, textures, and productions. At their best, albums like At Home With Owen and L’Ami Du Peuple are full of small moving parts that fade into the background, leaving behind a smooth, gently-worn surface.
All of this becomes suddenly manifest when listening to Other People’s Songs, Kinsella’s album-length collection of covers. The LP is unsurprisingly gorgeous, but is surprisingly revelatory for giving us a cross-section of Kinsella’s approach to songcraft. The album begins with a fascinating re-working of Lungfish’s “Descender”, an imaginative retrofit that digs out the poignant, sentimental pop song buried beneath the Baltimore post-hardcore band’s thick, swirling eccentricity. Starting over with just the song’s ascending, major-key chords, Kinsella reveals a touching love song where there was once Daniel Higgs punk mysticism. Leaving the emphasis squarely on the song’s narrative about an entrancing free-spirit, the song suddenly feels like a lost dispatch from the love-struck At Home With Owen or New Leaves, albums that were often similarly (and movingly) carried away by finding transcendence in love. Expertly crafted, Owen’s “Descender” features rusty bits of harmonica and room noise floating in the background, and carefully adds percussion, bells, and subtle, gloaming keyboard, eventually offering a more sylvan take on precisely the kind of cycling maximalism that made the original so striking. The song is one of the year’s finest.
There is similar imagination – and shrewd instinct – in the album’s rendition of The Promise Ring’s classic “Forget Me”. Taking the pop-Americana that courses through the emo band’s 1997 landmark Nothing Feels Good and allowing it to direct the arrangement, Kinsella turns the song into a brassy alt-country shuffle, complete with flinty bits of guitar jangle and a fiddle solo. Depeche Mode’s “Judas” operates in the same gentle and slow-building register that has defined so much of the Owen catalogue, so it’s perhaps to be expected that Kinsella largely keeps the song’s initial dulcet spaciousness, though swapping the original’s baroque blanket of strings and echo-y electronics for a simple guitar figure and a distant violin and cello, and occasional dots of piano. As is the case with “Descender”, the rendition washes away some of the original’s gloomier, minor key moments, but in the process emphasizes a poignant re-reading of the song. Again, the strength of Mike Kinsella’s imagination – and his ear for a certain kind of hard-won romantic optimism – becomes the new focus.
Elsewhere, the thick chugging of Against Me!’s “Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart” is condensed down to a single, spangling acoustic guitar and occasional string sweeps that eventually add a spare drum kit as Sarah Mitchell (whose work throughout the album is great) subs in for Tegan Quin’s spot on the original. The rendition is striking, if not as inventive as the album’s deconstructions of “Descender” and “Judas”. Similarly, a pared-down take on All’s “Just Like Them” feels more like a casual acoustic cover than the thoughtful reimagining that typifies the rest of Other People’s Songs, especially when Kinsella attempts an acoustic version of Stephen Egerton’s characteristically goofy guitar solo (one can count successful acoustic guitar solos on one hand). Yet “Just Like Them” is at least warmed by the twangy creak that has increasingly marked Mike Kinsella’s singing, and, as is the case throughout, there is added pathos in the ruminative way Kinsella delivers a song about loneliness and desperation. The ideas found in “Just Like Them” make sense for Owen, even if the song itself might not.
The album closes with one of its finest entries, a spry, shimmering take on The Smoking Pope’s “Under The Blanket”. Filled out with the plucky piano, spartan percussion (mostly just a single insistent floor tom), and tangles of electric guitar that made New Leaves feel so tangibly radiant, the song is lovely and lovingly arranged, ending Other People’s Songs with a final reminder of Mike Kinsella’s gift for pop song architecture and major-key melody, and his way with a certain sort of hard-nosed love song.