Boy oh boy, did I expect to hate this record. The press kit alone nauseated me, with its hyperbolic invocations of “blossoming atmospherics” and “waves of guitars and drums that ultimately crest, bursting into the tears of honest men.” Who writes this stuff?!
Anyone who’s read my previous reviews (hi Mom!) also knows that I pretty much slammed The Appleseed Cast’s side project, Hundred Hands, on the grounds of unimaginative and self-congratulatory navel gazing. Come to think of it, I’d begun to believe that the whole Lawrence, Kansas scene was stupid, except for maybe the ‘80s punk band the Micronotz, who at least were actually local high school kids. Ever since Langston Hughes put Lawrence on the map simply by being born, and William Burroughs solidified its reputation by dying there, underworld hopefuls from both coasts have come to Lawrence to peddle their brand of nonconformity. Like many small but notorious towns (my own Iowa City not least among them), provincialism seems to have been elevated to the level of an art form in the jingoistic celebration of all things local. I considered The Appleseed Cast to be yet another of Lawrence’s small-pond imports.
I am here to tell you that I was wrong, wrong, wrong. No matter what I may have thought about their previous efforts, Low Level Owl is a beautiful album. And all of the problems I had with Hundred Hands—really with the notion of emo in general—are soundly refuted in a recording that neither flinches nor pities itself. From the opening three chords, shimmering drops in a wash of droney feedback, I was stunned.
A friend of mine tells a story about someone’s cell phone going off during one of the “quiet bits” at a Mogwai show, and incurring the sullen wrath of hundreds of emo devotees. I actually really enjoy Mogwai, but I think this example illustrates what’s wrong with the genre they’ve come to represent. An overly reverent attitude will never do when it comes to rock music.
Which is why I like this album so much. Yes, it tries very hard to capture something like emotional honesty, but it laughs at desperation. Songs like “Mile Marker” insert a jaunty, celebratory tone into an otherwise rather dour picture; at the same time, I never had the feeling that Crisci, Pillar, Young and Baruth had lost sight of the difficulty of what they were trying to do. This is deliberately not pop music. But I bet you could play this album to almost anyone, and they’d hear and appreciate its intensity. It is not, in other words, unapproachable.
Low Level Owl is billed as that freaky thing, the concept album. As such, the aforemaligned press kit is at pains to point out that the song divisions are merely organic pauses in a unified statement. Nevertheless, a few cuts stand out. The first song “The Waking of Pertelotte”, is a soaring opener awash in feedback and gently reverberating chords. On this song and elsewhere on the album, an almost devotional introduction gives way to a kind of fluttering abandon. At such moments the arpeggio style made famous by The Edge fuels energy that feels all the more intense for having pulled itself out of the initial droney muck. Often it takes a few songs to get up to that cruising speed-thus the second song, “On Reflection”, picks up with the arpeggio but adds a few emphatic drum smacks to establish the feeling before the ride cymbal carries the sweet guitar into the smoothness of strings and impressionistic vocals.
I much prefer Josh Baruth’s drums to producer Ed Rose’s, whose monochromatic style is part of what ruined the Hundred Hands album. In this vein, songs like “Messenger” provide a contrast between light, quick work (again, usually the ride) and very echo-heavy snare drums. Laid over a high organ refrain it stands in near perfect balance, rolling and tapping its way through the reverberating, sparse orchestration. The next song, “Doors Lead to Questions”, is another rhythm driven song that, like “Mile Marker”, uplifts, lightens, and sweetens the mood. The lyrics (usually better ignored, like the tacky song titles) in this case speak of hope with simple eloquence.
Optimism is always more compelling when it is hard-won. So it is that Low Level Owl sings the shape of that rare thing: redemption.