The Anniversary

Owls Turns 20

Jade Tree
Jade Tree

“Cap’n Jazz reunion produced by Steve Albini” is one hell of a sales pitch, but it wasn’t the one Owls really made on their self-titled album. In 2001, “not Joan Of Arc” would have sufficed.

Tim Kinsella’s belief in the longest-running of his many projects rarely wavered over 25 years of chaotic lineup shifts, public indifference, and some of the most vicious criticism to come from music criticism’s most vicious era. These days, any sub-4.0 Pitchfork review becomes Music Twitter’s main character for at least the next day; Joan Of Arc’s seven archived reviews received an average score of 3.7 before their swan song Tim Melina Theo Bobby doubled it as a kind of retirement gift. When Kinsella shut down Joan Of Arc for real and for good in 2020, even their most vocal critics could at least respect it as a superhuman act of stubbornness. So if people ask me where to begin with Joan Of Arc’s confounding and frequently rewarding catalog, I might suggest going directly to 2000’s The Gap — an album whose response was so overwhelmingly negative that it actually made Kinsella second-guess himself.

“The response to The Gap was so intense and we were a little shook as a band,” Kinsella stated in 2018. “Pretentious” popped up in nearly every description of Joan Of Arc to that point, and there’s no denying its accuracy; I also imagine Kinsella would take it as a compliment. But on a record that essentially served as Kinsella’s self-tutorial on then-novel ProTools recording software, The Gap caused a rift too big to cross. Pitchfork gave it a 1.9; prolific emo hatchetman Brett DiCrescenzo wrote, “Live In Chicago, 1999, the predecessor to The Gap, struck me as ‘horrible,’ ‘abysmal,’ and perhaps, ‘the worst record I’ve ever heard,'” before explaining why the new one was even worse (“Joan Of Arc are as Chicago, low-class, unknown, and unappetizing as Green River cola”). Even the typically enthusiastic All Music Guide levied a rare 1.5-star review, a circumspect accounting of Kinsella’s missteps before concluding “the difficult to listen to and somewhat unwarranted avant-garde leanings of this release make it only necessary for serious fans and the occasional masochist.”

The Gap‘s subsequent tour was predictably miserable, the band playing to significantly smaller crowds than in years past when they were likely still drifting off the goodwill of “ex-Cap’n Jazz.” “The tour ended and we didn’t speak to each other for two months,” Kinsella noted. As reflected in the Vice documentary Your War (I’m One Of You): 20 Years Of Joan Of Arc, they were surprisingly popular in Japan, but after that brief run overseas, the band was done. At least that’s what their label thought: Jade Tree’s website claimed Joan Of Arc had broken up, which Kinsella denied. When Epitaph absorbed Jade Tree in 2018 and reissued Joan Of Arc’s earliest records, The Gap wasn’t included in the campaign. “Honestly, they didn’t even bring it up. So I didn’t bring it up,” Kinsella joked. Perhaps the only thing Tim Kinsella disdains more than the music press is indie rock convention and nostalgia, but… desperate times and all. And so this is how we end up with Kinsella getting the band back together — Cap’n Jazz guitarist Victor Villareal, bassist Sam Zurick, and Tim’s brother Mike on drums.

But this being Tim Kinsella — or maybe he was going by Tim Kinsella(s) at the time — there had to be a layer of obfuscation. Owls has plausible deniability as a Cap’n Jazz reunion, even though it brought back four of its original members playing the same instruments and a fairly similar style of music. This was actually kind of a thing at the time for second-wave emo legends; three fourths of Sunny Day Real Estate reformed as the Fire Theft, while Hey Mercedes was “Braid minus Chris Broach.” The missing piece here was Promise Ring frontman Davey Von Bohlen, who’d been the final addition to the Cap’n Jazz lineup; he was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor a year earlier and was forced to cancel shows with Bad Religion after a post-surgical infection required removal of a “palm-sized portion of the singer’s skull.” But while the Fire Theft and Hey Mercedes were unfairly maligned for both sounding too much and also not quite enough like their predecessors, Owls was warmly received — presumably because it wasn’t Joan Of Arc. That was somewhat by design: Owls was recorded straight to tape at Electrical Audio with Steve Albini, not a laptop or any kind of keyboard in sight.

It’s possible to think of Owls as the result of its members using the seven years after Cap’n Jazz’s breakup as R&D for the new venture. No matter how many times American Football gets credited with putting an alternately tuned Telecaster into the hands of every emo guitarist from 2008 on, it’s worth remembering that the entire project was intended as a model for getting out of the genre — punk kids go to college, get into Miles Davis and Steve Reich, and that’s a wrap.

Mike Kinsella’s plaintive, soft-focus emoting and neatly manicured guitar harmonies were not imported into Owls, but the fascination with off-kilter percussive rhythms and jazz improv were; and yet, Kinsella was up to the task as a drummer, having made incredible strides since being forced into action as a 12-year old when Cap’n Jazz’s original drummer left to pursue actual American football. Villareal and Zurick were involved in Ghosts And Vodka, one of the earliest examples of the unrequited affection between Chicago emo and Chicago post-rock, which tended to treat the former like an annoying kid brother; Ghosts And Vodka’s 2001 debut Precious Blood could best be described as an emo Tortoise with poop jokes; apparently, “I ​​want to salt your poop and wear it on my face like a beard” was inscribed on the liner notes for the CD, which is probably your best bet for actually hearing the thing. It’s unavailable on streaming platforms, and there are several tracks that didn’t make it onto the 2020 vinyl repress because of “audio quality issues.” The only thing really missing are the shoutalong hooks and singsong melodies, easy enough to attribute to Von Bohlen, who helmed the most pop-focused and successful of Cap’n Jazz’s many offshoots.

The growth of each as a musician was obvious, though in shifting from pure Midwestern emo to mutt-like math rock, Owls triggered the typical joke about the genre: They’re either virtuosos or they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. Villareal first arrived to Cap’n Jazz band practice as a teenage, acid-dropping metalhead playing Randy Rhoads’ “Dee.” In the time since, his style had become far less technical in the Guitar Center sense and more bespoke. On Owls, his sweep-picking past occasionally cropped up in the giddy intro riff of “Everyone Is My Friend” and the blinding runs of “I Want The Blindingly Cute To Confide In Me,” as did the occasional hint of alternate-tuned jangle; outlier “Life In The Hair Salon-Themed Bar On The Island” ran American Football through a RAT Distortion pedal.

Otherwise, it’s abundantly clear why Owls could never be as influential as American Football: Tune your guitar to FACGCE and move a chord shape around, it’ll probably sound pretty, whereas Villareal’s style is impossible to replicate, taunting amateur tabs by working in incomprehensible rhythms and percussive tics. For the most part, he sounds like he’s tickle-torturing his guitar or crumbling his strings into tinfoil. With Villareal and the vocal melodies going off in frequently opposite directions, Mike Kinsella and Zurick somehow keep things grounded. I’m not even sure “math rock” really qualifies, since that term implies a logical and countable rhythm, whereas Owls follows some kind of algebraic equation, its time signatures constantly mutating. They could replicate the free-flowing sway of jazz, the prickly post-punk of Modest Mouse, or the egghead deconstructions of post-rock; there’s also an unstable and elliptical nature to their musicianship that suggests it would sound completely different if they recorded a week later.

Owls sure didn’t sound much like anything else happening at the time, certainly nothing that would be framed as “emo.” Even beyond the major crossover events happening earlier in the year — The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most, Stay What You Are, Bleed AmericanOwls was an odd outlier in Jade Tree’s 2001 release slate, loaded with the variously straight-ahead likes of Strike Anywhere, Pedro The Lion, and Milemarker. Meanwhile, Appleseed Cast’s staggering double-LP Low Level Owl was more in line with what “post-rock” meant for populist-leaning, indie rock bands of that time, i.e., Radiohead, Sigur Rós, or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Owls’ oblong-shaped takes on post-rock, post-punk, and post-jazz earned time-stamped comparisons to Don Caballero, Frank Zappa, and Captain Beefheart, but also Pavement and Sunny Day Real Estate (The Pink Album, I suppose). What Owls didn’t sound much like was Cap’n Jazz; with one major exception (“Everyone Is My Friend”), nothing here bore the innocence or ebullience of “Little League” or “Oh Messy Life” or anything else that could’ve been shouted out in dank DIY houses across Big Ten country.

It’s just as well, seeing as how Kinsella never felt aligned with emo, even as Cap’n Jazz were intermingled with Braid, Indian Summer, and many other bands that became definitive articles of the genre. In Your War, he demurred on the e-word, describing Cap’n Jazz as “weirdo punk,” an attribution that seems more true of Owls. And yet, if there’s any contributor whose stylistic tics tie back to Cap’n Jazz, it’s actually Tim Kinsella. Although infused eith his typical verbal gamesmanship, Owls is the most lyrically legible work he’s ever created. “I enjoy myself!” Kinsella shouts on a song titled “I Want The Blindingly Cute To Confide In Me,” which… obviously. “Anyone Can Have A Good Time” rests on a mantra of “We fall into patterns quickly/ We fall into patterns too quickly”; it just takes about five minutes for him to get there. The first song is titled “What Whorse You Wrote Id On” for reasons only known to Tim Kinsella, though the sleuth work required to decode “Life In The Hair Salon-Themed Bar On The Island” and “For Nate’s Brother Whose Name I Never Knew Or Can’t Remember” was feasible even with 2001’s search engine capacity; the former refers to the Beauty Bar nightclub chain, the latter to their cousin and future American Football utility man Nate Kinsella.

But otherwise, Owls is based at the same emotional pitch as Shmap’n Shmazz, only Kinsella seems to know what to do with it this time around. At times, it’s playing the all-knowing social oracle: “Have you yet met the new guys?/ Let’s play who here would’ve gone Nazi,” he mutters, referencing a 1941 Harper’s article that was thrust back into the discourse for obvious reasons in 2017. “Would you two like each other? Or are you too alike,” he chides on “Everyone Is My Friend,” the title itself a knowing wink at what would otherwise appear to be an entire career based on “I’m not here to make friends.” “I’m sick again/ In a blizzard lit by city streets/ All the night’s salt and limes have come to light,” he sings on “Holy Fucking Ghost,” his side gig as a bartender giving a view from both angles at the cyclical nature of being depressed and drinking away the depression. Clearly, he’s not in a position to judge: “Our days are just unjustifiable/ And our nights are given only to forgetting/ And each morning all I know is I’ll be no good come night/ And each night all I know is I’ll be no good come morning.”

It’s all there, an advanced version of the urges that beset and perplexed him as a teenager: friendship, the social contract, the Smiths, alcohol, sex and lots of it. Don’t let the titles of “I Want The Blindingly Cute To Confide In Me” and “I Want The Quiet Moments Of A Party Girl” fool you, as I did as a super-sensitive college student who would’ve used those as objectives on my resume. “Anything I can mistake in the dark for being what I’m looking for is good enough for me,” that’s the first damn line on the record. And on the closing “Holy Fucking Ghost,” Kinsella more or less admits to masturbating with Jesus — insofar as Tim Kinsella will plainly admit to anything.

The dissonance in Kinsella’s writing style could easily again be chalked up to his professorial pretensions — and it often did. It strikes me more as following in the Dadaist tradition of découpé (I’d use “cut-up technique” but Kinsella immersion does things to you), as collage is endemic to Owls’ process — the cover art for both of their albums have been created in this fashion, though it’s the second which provides more insight into their internal artistic dynamic. The 2014 version of Owls features a bloodied, disembodied head of Noel Gallagher, which Tim described as “definitely Mike’s comment about beating up the older brother in the band.” Tim altered pictures of Traci Lords and Vanessa Williams, describing the process as “cutting up the forbidden porn of my youth.”

It’s always easy to retroactively ascribe predictive powers to lyrics if they resemble social media transmissions in any way: “Rehearsing disasters and forecasting all of your needs” is about as accurate of a prophecy of Twitter’s main purpose as 2001 could possibly provide, as is the chorus of “I Want The Quiet Moments Of A Party Girl,” which mirrors the pervasive toggling between posting death wishes and thirst traps: “I’m sorry I want to die/ Do you still want to die?/ Let’s get it on.” “I danced early and got shy and had to go home early,” he later howls on “Everyone Is My Friend,” a clear antecedent to the dozens and dozens of songs in the past decade about showing up to parties and wishing you could leave. The lyrics sheet once appeared to be a mishmash of stray one-liners and odd digressions in 2001, and now reads like a Twitter timeline, no logical coherence or continuity aside from clearly being the thoughts of one distinct personality.

While Owls was met with the warmest reception Kinsella had received in years — and really the last one until 2020 — he would not respond in kind. “When I talked to Tim Kinsella(s), he was eating and belching in my ear over the phone like a dickhead,” reads an interview from 2001. “I read this weekly music column because is [sic] makes me so mad,” Kinsella goes on to say. “It’s like anything this guy thinks is good, you know is just awful. And this morning I read it, and he said how good the Owls’ album is, and I was like, that’s it, we should just break up right now.”

He didn’t have to wait. Several months after the release of Owls, Mike Kinsella debuted Owen, a raw singer-songwriter project that ironically placed him right back in the zeitgeist of emo. He left the band, and Owls didn’t last much longer after that. A reconstituted Joan Of Arc would embark on what Tim Kinsella might consider their golden era. Owls got back together in 2010… as Cap’n Jazz, playing reunion shows without Von Bohlen. This led to the second Owls album in 2014 and a short tour thereafter. I recall seeing them at the Roxy in Los Angeles, during that weird time when all of the bigger emo and post-hardcore shows were being booked at a quintessential Sunset Strip joint. Zurich wore cargo shorts, a bucket hat, and Crocs. Tim sneered at audience requests. They didn’t play “Everyone Is My Friend.” As with the 2010 Cap’n Jazz reunion, Tim didn’t seem all that thrilled to be there. That said, neither was particularly well-attended, and this was before American Football’s reunion and peak emo revival rejuvenated interest in all things Kinsella. Cap’n Jazz’s 2017 gig at FYF Fest was one of the best festival sets I’ve seen in the past decade.

Owls remains a squirmy, unique listen 20 years later, and despite the nature of retrospectives like these, I won’t front like this album experienced a slow-burn success or became massively influential: black midi’s more accessible moments are the closest thing I’ve heard to Owls over the past decade, even more so than emo’s obscure and angular offshoots. Yet despite its modest place in the Kinsella Family Power Rankings, Owls feels like the platonic ideal for a Kinsella family project — an inspired and frankly necessary creative outlet that kickstarted two decades of worthy art from Tim and Mike, ended when it no longer served that purpose, and revived on their terms. Its merit has certainly been recognized over the years: “Everyone Is My Friend” clocked in at #42 on Vulture’s 100 Best Emo Songs survey, while Rolling Stone placed Owls as the #34 emo album on a list that more or less cuts off at 2013. But the most apt placement occurs on the AV Club’s retrospective of the 2000s, a list that reflects the more outré picks from its individual writers, ones that don’t fit into the decade’s greater narratives. I imagine Tim enjoyed the unintentional pun of Owls being named one of the best “orphan” albums of the 2000s: What is it, if not the most unruly branch on the Kinsella Family Tree?

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