by Chad Jewett
In the punk rock collective unconscious, Owls are to Cap’n Jazz as Fugazi were to Minor Threat. Like Complete Discography, Analphabetapolothology was a monumental slab of uncharted territory, a double LP that launched a thousand post-hardcore ships. Both records found ways to approach adolescence with incredibly complex mixtures of naivety and sophistication, brash youthful ids and art-damaged super egos. And like Fugazi, Owls ended up being a second, more complicated, entirely thornier guise. If “Screaming At A Wall” or “Out of Step” largely spoke to teenage concerns in ways that informed adult worldviews more than defined or really reflected them, then the frequently oblique expressionism of Repeater or In On The Kill Taker valued difficulty and close-reading over instant connection or catharsis. So it went with the transition from the instantly recognizable and relatable goofiness of “Little League” and “Puddle Splashers,” songs whose literal meanings didn’t matter half as much as their utterly open youthfulness, to the more internalized, cerebral mazes of “What Whorse You Wrote Id On” (hell, that title asks more of the listener than the first side of Analphabetapolothology).
Two, Owls’ long-awaited sophomore LP, maintains the first album’s nerviness, its barbed relationship with the sounds of Cap’n Jazz (both bands were founded by Tim and Mike Kinsella) and the world that blossomed around it. Indeed, it comes as a pleasant surprise when “Four Works of Art…” begins not with the back-twisting of emo-guitar curlicues, but instead a dense plod of brittle post-punk. Sounding more like Lungfish or a less ornate Slint, the song slithers along in minor key rust, punctuated by Tim Kinsella’s Dadaist poetry (the hook: “I know I know, I know I know, I know I know, I. Know. I. Know.”, sung in a compelling and vaguely unnerving falsetto. It’s a brave, if unsurprising way for a band whose legacy is tied up in the tangled web of American Football, The One Up Downstairs, Owen, and yes, Cap’n Jazz to start an anxiously awaited return. But much like Tim Kinsella’s day job, Joan of Arc, Owls seem to value challenge above all else, even if those challenges come in starting a record with a warped version of the Pixies, where most were expecting a warped version of “In The Clear.”
“I’m Surprised…” is more familiar, though it wraps its spirals of semi-clean guitar around a beat that manages to be both fussy and rhythm-oriented. Rather than feel mathematic and over-cerebral, the song instead tangles itself in a welcome thump that gives the band’s signature arpeggio trickles a sense of proportion and purpose. There’s an actual groove hidden somewhere beneath the coils and coils of wry, complicated harmonies. The punch-drunk lurch of “The Lion…” is similarly fascinating in the new rhythmic palette it finds for these interweaving sounds. The song pairs spangles of American Football-esque upper register guitars to a woozy stomp, never straying from the harmonic complications of Chicago post-hardcore, but like the best bands that studied Owls (Bear vs. Shark come to mind), getting an actual song out of all of that mess. “Why Oh Why…” (an album highlight) verges on the skip-steps of sunny AM soul before darkening shades of rusted-up bass give the song its mixed-emotional palette, always swaying between pop-oriented major key brightness and atonal (bad) mood music. Added up, Two’s opening third is defined by songs that seem more than happy to indulge in the knotted-up guitars of Midwestern emo algebra, but just as eager to infuse those sounds with rhythms that feel directed to your hips and your tapping foot more than your approving nods.
“Ancient Stars Seed…” pairs that unsettled major/minor mélange with the lost-in-thought falsetto of “Four Works of Art…”, seesawing between the beautiful and the ominous. At times this extends to even more elemental strata of the song; Kinsella will sing an ostensibly pure major key melody over slowly darkening chords until there seems to be little relation between the sing-song of the narrative and the moody confusion roiling beneath (later tracks “I’ll Never Be” and “It Collects Itself” operate similarly). At times Two sounds like a pop record, and indeed, no song passes without considerable time spent in interludes of major key sweetness. But a long history with the aggressive challenges of Tim Kinsella’s long discography underline just how untrustworthy each pleasant passage feels. Occasionally the record unfolds like a tug of war between the pristine gorgeousness of Mike Kinsella’s Owen project and the near-bitter ironic streak of Joan of Arc. That conflict makes Two compelling, and sweetens the album’s most starkly abstruse moments to the point that the album’s experiments and confrontations feel inviting where they could have easily felt mildly defensive, even unnecessarily defiant, an aura attached to a good deal of Joan of Arc’s more recent output.
“Oh No Don’t” pushes all of this to its own weird brink, pairing an overcast dinosaur stomp to unwinding guitars that would be pretty in any other context, as Tim Kinsella essentially lists things not to be smashed, with the preceding title plea. Perhaps as one would expect, it’s where Owls sinks its oddball teeth in deepest that its provocations become most tiresome, but suddenly an infectious vamp of a chorus settles in to warm away the fog, injecting forward motion and energy into what previously felt purely like someone else’s idea of fun. The rest of the song twists away amongst these brambles, slinky-coil bass scraping along reedy guitars. When the earlier litany of “Oh No’s” returns it does so amongst a more interesting post-rock collage, feeling like a more welcome kind of complication.
“A Drop of Blood…” plays as an energized version of the album’s beginning, an oddly legible indie rock song whose (minor) key is recognizable, whose melody is catchy the way a first-string Sebadoh tune is catchy, rather than the way the weirdest imaginable Pavement song is catchy. Guitars fray themselves apart here, as elsewhere, but they do so unassumingly, to laid-out steps that never feel anything other than intuitive. “A Drop of Blood…” is perhaps the only track on the album where those periods of ellipses, which dot every title, actually speak to what the song is; an abrupt ending and a withheld conclusion. Oddly enough, Owls find ways to challenge by being willfully un-challenging. Perhaps it’s perfect that Two ends in the most surprising way possible – unexpectedly unexpected.