Indie Rock is Important. No city embodies that tragicomic claim like Chicago. Thrill Jockey– the silly coven of haughty and eminently geeky indie-rockers with unbearable jazz pretensions and its arsenal of post-every-fucking-thing-under-the-sun nomenclature– has consistently been the most egregious of the Second City’s many labels vying for real-life importance, your serious esteem, and of course, CD and show-ticket dollars. But while the über-musicianly Sir John McEntire and his Knights of Bucktown have been out wielding Powerbooks, Kinsella(s) Inc. has been steadily building an empire of pretension.
Sometimes tickling the critics into embarrassing coos of honeyed admiration, and other times inspiring equally disproportionate rock-crit fatwas, Tim Kinsella has succeeded where other Illini have failed: in disarming the full fury of his detractors with nothing more than a smirk. I’m not talking, of course, about Kinsella’s actual countenance; I’m referring to his neo-absurdist temperament and the obvious fun with which he goes about his business.
Even when he was just the scratchy-voiced, baby-faced ringmaster of Cap’n Jazz, Tim Kinsella was already establishing himself as a first- (well, maybe second) rate semantic clown and word-gamesman. With a penchant for double-entendre and imagistic jokes, Kinsella charmed his partisans and alienated the rest of us with his Duchampesque disregard for everything, and created a contested little body of work which still polarizes fans of the genre. Personally, Joan of Arc drives me up the fucking wall, but my dismissal of the band has nothing to do with the personality phenomenon of Kinsella; they sorely lacked dynamism, and there were too few hooks and too much blipped-over space for my liking.
Owls reunites the boys from Cap’n Jazz for another stab at the rock. Abthent thith time ith the Promith Ring’th Davey Von Bohlen, but the remaining cast (Tim Kinsella, brother Mike on drums, guitarist Victor Villareal, and bassist Sam Zurick) are back in strong form.
So, too, is Tim Kinsella’s jokiness, though that’s not such a bad thing. Even the typical, hideously Kinsellated title of "What Whorse You Wrote Id On" doesn’t detract from the opening track’s elegant mood and almost sing-songy warmth. The guitarwork is nothing short of gorgeous, with Villareal arpeggiating a trebly, spidery path into your aural memory, his picking providing a textural counterpoint to Mike Kinsella’s ornate drumming, which it should be said has never sounded this good.
"Anyone Can Have a Good Time" starts quietly and jangly over a semi-marshal beat in non-standard time. Things seem to be meandering, only to find anchorage in what passes for a refrain. The tonally challenged Kinsella spits tick-tocky syllables over one more verse, and after a pleasant mood shift and instrumental interlude, the song’s end-section begins. "We fall into patterns quickly/ We fall into patterns too quickly," sings a background Tim Kinsella, as a forefront one screams, "Unname everybody/ Unname everyone," in emo bursts of surprisingly well-hit notes as the song peters out.
"Life in the Hair Salon Themed Bar on the Island" (an apparent reference to Beauty Bar on 14th St. in New York City), is the proggiest of the album’s tracks. That is to say, it sounds like indie rock interpreting Frank Zappa influences from something they read in a book. The standout comes with the subsequent song, "I Want the Blidingly Cute to Confide in Me." It encapsulates many of the album’s disparate, yet weirdly integrated, strains: its faux-jazzy rhythm excursions, its Andy Summers-on-crack guitar playing, the intermittently truly beautiful vocal melodies, and of course, Kinsella’s lyrical shots in the dark.
Owls’ music is an odd concoction of opposing and random musical and emotional trajectories. You can hear echoes of Cap’n Jazz and, every bit as clearly, some really weird "adult contemporary" musical phrases, too. The mélange works very well enough, though, and hits the mute button on the death knell so many would like sound on Kinsella’s oddly resilient and shapeshifting career. Goddamnit.