American Football’s New LP3: Best In Class, Ever

A couple dozen listens in, here’s how I was feeling about American Football’s new LP3, released last Friday through Polyvinyl Records. These are messages I sent to a good friend and guitarist I used to rock out with:



Five stars. And—you heard it here first—it’s not only American Football’s best album, but the best album this genre has produced to date.

The other reviews I’ve read or skimmed talk a lot about the lyrics. This one is more about the music itself, all written when I first listened a month and a half ago.




Whoever called this album “post-house” is a genius


American Football’s third full-length LP has my new favorite album beginning. The band released the album’s first track (its first single) well before the album’s release date. I remember when I first heard its sparse, gradually building intro. Xylophone, vibraphone, then bass. The first LP didn’t even have bass… was this even the same band? Then, and only then, does the band come in, sounding fuller, tighter, more confident, and more creative than ever before. The string swells, chimey guitars, fat (phat?) bass line, vibraphone, silky vocals, and totally perfect drums make this the best American Football song I’ve ever heard. Easily. Its 7 minutes and 22 seconds passed in an instant.

I felt like Bill and Ted must have felt when they went up to heaven and heard the future Bill and Ted’s new jams. If there were a Platonic form of an American Football song, “Silhouettes” would be it. Steve Holmes, Mike Kinsella, Nate Kinsella, Steve Lamos might be my first choice for the soundtrack of heaven.

Where do you go from the epic opening track? To vocal duets! The next two tracks feature Hayley Williams (Paramore) and Elizabeth Powell (Land of Talk). Mike Kinsella’s vocals and the interlocking guitar parts—whether as Owen or as American Football—are already so full and so good, I’d never even considered what an outside-the-band singer could do for them. It’s an awesome sound. (Track 6 features another vocalist: Rachel Goswell of the just reunited Slowdive, and it’s an amazing song.)

The flute on track 4 (“Heir Apparent”) is about the last instrument I expected to hear, but, man, is that a cool song. Just as it starts soothingly hypnotizing the listener at the 4-minute mark, in comes… well, I won’t spoil it for you. It’s yet more sweet instrumentation I never would have thought to have in an American Football song, but it works great (even if the instrumentation and the lyrics feel like a mismatch).

Thank God there’s another nearly 8-minute track on this record. The fifth track (“Doom in Full Bloom”) begins with a reverb-y trumpet (just like old times), which gives way to more ethereal goodness, this one with layered vocals, guitars, piano, and a smooth, laid back drum beat. It’s not hard to imagine this song—with its syncopated rhythms and detuned guitars—being covered by a metal band. In its current form, though, it’s smooth and beautiful.

They could have stopped after five songs and still had a genre-changing album. But the sixth track (“I Can’t Feel You,” with Goswell) is just nuts. The drum and bass combo calls to mind my favorite Radiohead track of all time, “Where I End and You Begin,” but this is very much its own song. I wouldn’t be surprised if it got radio airplay.

The last two tracks are awesome, too. The closing song “Life Support” is spellbinding.

The only thing I don’t love about this album is—years later—I still can’t tell if I think of some of Mike Kinsella’s lyrics as “overly dramatic” or if he’s just speaking openly and “honestly.” Maybe somewhere in between. Either way, the sublime music more than makes up for any impatience the listener may have with continued reference to “relentless adolescence”—a theme which, in fact, Kinsella treats beautifully in the last song.

American Football is making music on a whole new level right now—both compared to their previous stuff and compared to the rest of what’s in the emo and indie rock scene. Nothing else is close. There are few better musical experiences than putting on headphones and listening to a brand new American Football album for the first time (and it’s been two years since the last time), so once you’ve downloaded this album via the provider of your choice, block out some time and space and enjoy.

Here’s the record at Polyvinyl.



Thanks to the powers-that-be for the advance release download of this fine album, so I could write a review.

American Football LP2: Fallen Leaves Return to Their Roots

AF_2016_LP_Jacket_PRINT.inddSeventeen years is a long time to wait for new music from a band you love. Fortunately, none of us (not even the band) knew we were waiting that long. In 2014 American Football reunited, after putting out 12 of the most enduring tracks of my college years.

In some ways the success or failure of this album was much like this year’s Vice Presidential debate: the players really just had to show up and not seriously mess things up.

American Football Track List in iTunes.png

The album begins with the fading in of one, then two, then three interlocking guitar parts. Mike Kinsella’s, “Where are we now?” invites the listeners to consider their place in life since the last American Football record. “Both home alone… in the same house” shows the movement of the yearning-for-love teenage emo kid to a now married but still yearning adult. The house on this album cover is the same as that on their first full-length record. This time, though, as the cover suggests, listeners get a closer look at what’s going on inside: “Would you even know, babe, if I wasn’t home… if I wasn’t afraid to say what I mean?”

As the full band enters into this powerful opening waltz, the lyrics go on, “We’ve been here before.” Or as a Chinese proverb I recently discovered puts it, “Fallen leaves return to their roots.” These guys are back to their roots of making smart, intricate, and gorgeous music. But the vocals are stronger (and mixed louder), there is a bass now, the guitar tones are more varied, the drumming is just about perfect, and the production is what you’d expect if these guys had made major label status.

There’s a sense in which LP2 sounds exactly as I hoped it would—but couldn’t have possibly imagined. The second track’s familiar arpeggios, string bends, polyrhythms, and harmonics could have just as easily appeared on the first record. But I don’t think even a die-hard American Football fan could have seen the pummeling drum and bass intro of “Give Me the Gun” coming. That rhythm section, that never existed in the band’s first bass-less incarnation, makes this album more than just an old band making a new record.


Photo credit: Shervin Lainez


To pre-empt those who will bemoan how much this record “sounds like Owen” (especially with the acoustic guitar intro of “Home is Where the Haunt Is”), I offer three thoughts.

  1. Mike Kinsella is one, undivided person, so for his work on other projects (Owen) not to influence this band (American Football) would be impossible.
  2. Steve Holmes’s guitar work (not to mention Lamos and cousin Kinsella on rhythm) fill out the songs in a way that set it apart from just about anything Owen–even with full band–has created.
  3. Band members shared the songwriting process, trading off who offered the first seed of any given song.

There is, however, one unfortunate carry-over from Owen to American Football: a few raunchy lyrics that don’t find a place amid the transcendent beauty of the music this band creates. It’s not singing about sex I’m opposed to, but I cringe at lyrics like: “Dead eyes, and a mouth that can’t be clean / I can only imagine where that dirty mouth is / It’s not on me.” And, “I’m down for whatever / the uglier the better.”

So maybe Kinsella is speaking to himself when he sings later, “Why such vulgarity?” Or is it his interlocutor? I’ve had the same question since the second record Owen released. It’s a real mismatch with the gorgeousness of the music throughout the record, and something that was never in play with American Football. Kinsella does better with lines like, “Oh, how I wish that I were me / the man that you first met and married.”

The final track, “Everyone is Dressed Up,” is as much an instant classic as the album’s first song. The 6/8 time signature and return of Steve Lamos’s trumpet are a fitting end to this album, as are the poignant lyrics, “Our love will surely be forgotten by history and scholars alike.” The song is marred only by the final line of, “Everybody knows that the best way to describe the ocean to a blind man / is to push him in,” which, besides being unnecessarily demeaning (what is this, Donald Trump’s Twitter feed?), sounds like it might have been the final pre-deadline lyric of the album. The final track and album needed a more convincing ending, worthy of all the goodness that preceded it.

The nine tracks (the same number as the first LP) clock in at 37 minutes. After about five listens I found myself already wanting LP3! I hope the band stays together. They’re as in sync as ever, and the addition of Nate Kinsella’s bass rarely feels out of place, with the drumming of Steve Lamos being better than ever. Mike Kinsella and Steve Holmes might be my favorite pairing of guitarists, too—they haven’t missed a beat.

Get started on this album as soon as you can: the trifecta of the first three tracks are pure bliss. Despite a few shortcomings, LP2 was worth the wait.

American Football’s LP2 releases this Friday, October 21.


Purchase info: iTunes / Amazon / Polyvinyl



Thanks to the powers-that-be for the advance release download of this fine album, so I could write a review.

This Is Better Than Anything Apple Could Announce Today

2016 American Football


A second new American Football track has just released today. It’s one of the songs Mike Kinsella teased at on Instagram nearly half a year ago. It sounds almost nothing like the first song, and yet it sounds like everything you’d hope American Football could be. (You’ll have to forgive the melodrama. I’m more excited about this album than I have been for new music in years.)

Here it is:



NPR has a nice write-up of the song here.

Pre-order information is right here, and pre-orders ship October 12.


Whither American Football? October 21, That’s Whither!

2016 American Football


The funny thing about my American Football post yesterday is that I had it half written in my head before the social media new album tease yesterday. Those three Instagram samples were pretty convincing ( 1 / 2 / 3), but I confess that after a mere 20 weeks, I had started to lose faith in the second coming of American Football.

Now they’ve confirmed that a new album is coming, October 21 on Polyvinyl Records.

Here’s a piece from the press release:

The new self-titled sophomore album from the celebrated band comes seventeen years after their debut. The first single “I’ve Been So Lost For So Long” is available to hear now on SoundCloud, and on all DSPs tomorrow, August 24th.

The song–their first full, new song released since back in the day–is as beautiful as expected:



The melodic phrasing calls to mind Owen more than early American Football, but, hey, it’s the same singer, and that same singer has made a lot of Owen records since the first AF. Fair enough.

Pitchfork interviews the band here.

And, we have a track list!

1. Where Are We Now? (4:44)
2. My Instincts Are the Enemy (4:49)
3. Home Is Where the Haunt Is (3:26)
4. Born to Lose (4:54)
5. I’ve Been So Lost for So Long (4:36)
6. Give Me the Gun (3:24)
7. I Need a Drink (or Two or Three) (4:58)
8. Desire Gets in the Way (3:28)
9. Everyone Is Dressed Up (3:39)

Pre-order information is right here, and pre-orders ship October 12.


Whither American Football?



Disclaimer: I write this post with no inside information about the band American Football. Just a great enjoyment of their self-titled LP and EP and a desire to hear more music.

I’ve been checking Mike Kinsella’s Instagram page several times a week, ever since he posted three snippets of what must be new American Football music. I’ve listened to each one at least thirty times. Here they are: 1 / 2 / 3.

The new Owen album (reviewed here) made me even more eager for new American Football. It also confirmed that what we heard on those Instagram snippets was NOT Owen. At least, not the Owen that was just released. (And, who are we kidding? It didn’t sound like Owen anyway.)

Today my friend Eric—who graciously edited my many-worded Owen review—sent me links to some activity on the American Football Instagram page. Here they are: 1 / 2 / 3. (They also posted them on Twitter.)

Just to be clear (since I somehow missed this when watching the third one on my phone), there is new music here. The Twitter embed doesn’t work properly with WordPress, but click the url below to listen.

They seem to hint that an album is coming…. I haven’t been this excited about a new album since I waited and waited for OK Computer and miraculously scored an advanced CD from a used CD store five or six days before it came out.

So I’m bookmarking the American Football social media pages. I’ll post again here if (when?) a new AF album drops. In the meantime, we can all read (or re-read) this lengthy “oral history” of the band.

Settling Down with Owen: Of Empty Bottles, Tourniquets, and… Hope? (King of Whys, 2016)

In 2011’s Ghost Town Mike Kinsella (Owen) sang his credo in “I Believe”:

Hallelujah! I just found Jesus
Swimming at the bottom
Of the bottle I keep crawling out of
He said, “You look familiar, but I can’t place your face”
I said, “You look like hell” and that we used to hang
At my mother’s request

On the one hand, it’s a post-Catholic-upbringing, anti-religious declaration of sorts.

Have I been saved?
Cause I feel the same:
Dirty and tired

Can I be saved?
Without having changed
Or remorse for what I don’t believe?

On the other hand, I can see an honest Christian praying those words. He prays on:

I offer up my humble soul
And my broken spirit
All those things that I can’t control
The intangible bullshit
To you, my Lord

I know he’s being sarcastic (right?), but it’s hard not to hold out hope that one of my all-time favorite artists would really mean words like that, words which sound like David or Paul, and which capture the essence of some of my own prayers.

The rest of the song seems to clarify, however:

I believe
There is no white light
Somebody’s mistaken
Or somebody lied

I believe
There’s only one truth
It resonates different
In me and you
So don’t try and sell me yours

I think that last line–“so don’t try to sell me yours”–is the song’s interpretive key. The prayers were just at his “mother’s request,” and didn’t really work if he’s still feeling “the same: dirty and tired.” The prayer to “you, my Lord” is in scare quotes.

Whatever he meant, the song, “I Believe” is one of my favorite Owen tracks out of his 9 full-length albums and handful of EPs in the last 15 years.



Owen King of Whys Cover


Five years later the first track on the just-released King of Whys is “Empty Bottle.” The song presumably refers to the Chicago concert venue with that name (“Empty Bottle / crowded goth show”). But the connection to “I Believe” is inescapable, as it borrow’s the older song’s melody from the line “Hallelujah! I just found Jesus!” I would have thought this move subconscious were it not also for the similarly of the “empty bottle” to “the bottom of the bottle” in “I Believe.”

Now Owen has found the transcendence he was looking for, it seems, in interpersonal connection:

You’ve got a lot of nerves
Will you please touch mine with yours?

This is, after all, the album of a man now married and with kids.

“Empty Bottle” is as close as an acoustic guitar will get you to headbanging. By the end of the track, the album is already set to be as lush, intricate, and ethereal as anything Owen has done.

Next is “The Desperate,” where the familiar palm-muted acoustic guitar soon gives way to some dreamy pedal steel–the first discernible mark of S. Carey’s production (Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens). The song includes violins, piano, and poignant coming-of-age lyrics:

Somehow all of the sudden I find myself struggling
Two lives are too much and not enough
I concede this childish need for attention
is the desperate act of a disappearing man
You’d better catch him while you can

What a mess
Past and present stitched together, perilously tethered I ain’t fooling anyone (least of all me)

He continues with his signature combination of the clever and the mildly profane:

I’m calling in sick forever
and I’m calling bullshit on everyone

His next line–“This is a test and I’m failing”–seems like an antiphon to Pedro the Lion’s “If this is only a test, I hope that I’m passing.” The music is sweet and textured.

The song concludes:

You were right, Babe
I love how you know me
I know how you love me
I know how you long for this song to end

Owen is “Settled Down” now, which he explores in a track with more interlocking and arpeggiated guitars, accompanied with some sweet kick drum work. As this song concluded, on my first listen, I knew this album was among his best work. (Multiple listens through have confirmed the assessment.)

And then “Lovers Come and Go,” came on. I felt how I did the first time I listened to Owen’s 2001 self-titled debut. I don’t know if it’s the strings or the electric guitar overlays or the subtle but steady bass and drums, but it’s the kind of euphoric high that has kept me bobbing my head to emo well into my mid- to late-30s. Maybe I should have grown out of it by now, but songs like this only encourage me.

“Tourniquet” sounds at first like the kind of overly effusive, heart-on-the-sleeve, lyrical navel-gazing that got/gets me made fun of for listening to this kind of music: “This tourniquet hasn’t stopped the bleeding yet.”

But give him a chance:

If you give me this battle
I’ll pretend like there isn’t a lifetime of bitterness inside of me
An ugliness I hide from you
Give me that goddamn bottle and then leave me alone

Then there is the entrance of the horn parts. Over the song’s gorgeous layers, Owen sings:

This tourniquet hasn’t stopped the bleeding yet
I fear that I might lose a limb
Or a wife
Or whatever’s left inside

The closing words…

This tourniquet hasn’t stopped the bleeding yet
I fear that I might bleed out

…suggest that the song really is about marriage and fear of one’s self in the context of a long-term commitment. Melodramatic? Possibly. More vulnerable than many songwriters? Definitely.

Owen’s back catalogue is full of not-exactly-pro-feminist references to women. Owen is not Mark Kozelek-level misogynistic, but at least the persona of some of his songs veers towards womanizing territory. Too many to list here, but songs like “Poor Souls” (from his 2002 No Good for No One Now) have likely made listeners wonder what songwriting on the other side of marriage would be like. “Tourniquet” offers a glimpse.

Whatever else one could think about it, Owen is raw in articulating the wayward human condition, and how even marriage does not quell a wandering heart. (It might take finding Jesus to do that.) “Tourniquet” called to mind one of CCM’s most striking numbers: Amy Grant’s “Faithless Heart” of 1988, a song that caught her much flack from an unforgiving (and often disingenuous) Christian music industry. Like Grant’s confession, “Tourniquet” is a tough song to listen to but an important one.



“Burning Soul” represents a years-later take on an alcoholic father: “He wasn’t a saint, but he wasn’t a bad man.” Like his father before him, Owen sings,

Now I’ve got a burning soul
What now?
Both ends of my prayer candle are burned out

“Sleep Is a Myth,” the second-to-last track, starts out fatalistic:

Is this how you say, “Mon coeur bat la chamade?
Which pills did I take?
Were those bills ever paid?

Sleep is a myth
Believed but never witnessed by me

The spider bites are back
The eggs have finally hatched

But as the song progresses (and as the layers of vocals start to build), hope comes to the fore:

Don’t worry about the money
We’ll get by or we won’t
You look better hungry
You wear your weary eyes well
Now give me everything and then some
Bring out what’s dead and dying in your troubled head
Your lifeless body will awaken

Then the song moves into a nice, long, instrumental groove. The distorted drums and almost-shoegazing lead guitar line and choral vocals are a new sweet spot for Owen and company.

The album’s final track, “Lost,” is also its first single.

I winced at:

Stay poor and die trying
Take the drugs I didn’t take
Lay the whores I didn’t lay cause I was too afraid that I might like it

Kinsella sings to “the last of [his] feral friends.” Could the “friend” be his former self? Subtle allusions to previous Owen lyrics make it possible.

You may be wondering where all this wandering leads
You’re lost but at least you’ve nowhere to be and no one to leave you

The album closes on an odd note:

You may be wandering driveway to driveway drunk
A ghost without a house to haunt
The last of my feral friends, I know you’re lonely
but don’t waste your breath telling me that you want what I have
No one believes you

If this song is autobiographical (today’s Kinsella singing to yesterday’s Kinsella: “I see you but you can’t see me”), it’s a dour note to end on. Is he saying he really didn’t want the settled life? If he’s singing to a friend, there is the faintest hint of affirmation of the “settled down” lifestyle the artist has chosen (“you want what I have”), even while he knows “no one believes” his friend.

Musically the song never resolves to the tonic, so maybe the cliffhanger effect is on purpose.

After the strength of the first six tracks, I was hoping for something more final and summative at the end of the album, but maybe tension is how it has to end for Owen.



The horns and string and pedal steel on the album will leave you wanting that instrumentation on many Owen songs to come. His songwriting is as good as ever. And King of Whys is hands-down the best-produced Owen album to date.

Owen’s 2001 full-length record–his first–is still the benchmark against which I measure all of his albums. More than any other effort to date, King of Whys evokes the beauty of that first record. It’s a pleasure to listen to, and probably his most consistently good one since his debut. I’m already eager to hear where he’ll go next.


Purchase info: Amazon / iTunes / Polyvinyl


Thanks to the musical powers-that-be, who sent me an early download of the album so I could review it.