The lights go down. The spotlight hits the stage. A crowded room of indie-rock kids clink their glasses of single malt beverages. A buzz of conflicting conversations fill the air with a summer night’s insect symphony of discordant chaos. No one bothers thinking about an opening act. Then a man walks onto the stage, plugs in his guitar, presses play on a tape machine, and starts to sing. By the time the second song is over, the crowd has hushed and turned to watch this performer play his songs of quiet beauty. By the end of his set, everyone is enthralled, wrapped up in the light, airy tones that this single voice produced. The lights go back up and everyone starts talking again.
That’s sort of how I envision the crowd reaction to Owen’s music the first time they heard the act. Owen is Mike Kinsella, and, well, just Mike Kinsella. Yes, I’m sure you’re already skipping ahead, sure that I’m going to tell you that Kinsella wrote, sung, and played every instrument on every song on the album, and you’re right. But before you yawn, realize that this is something of a rarity in the indie-rock genre. Yep, this is an indie-rock singer-songwriter.
If Kinsella’s name sounds familiar, then you might be well acquainted with some of Chicago’s most notable indie acts of the past decade. Kinsella has played with Joan of Arc, Cap’n Jazz, and Owls, and was one of the primary songwriters and guitar players for American Football. But here Kinsella is out on his own, unsupported by bandmates, and laying himself on the line as a solo artist. Naming his act Owen is a bit silly, especially considering there’s another indie band with the same name, but stage moniker or not, this is Kinsella’s affair.
He first brought Owen to public light alone on stage opening shows for Rainer Maria, hence the imagined club scene. With three tours of shows with Rainer Maria behind him, Kinsella headed for his home studio to turn his music into a one-man-show album. And, like so many other solo albums where an artist is given total control of the recording process, it’s an album of hits and misses.
First and foremost, it must be said that though Kinsella has the proper indie-rock pedigree, this music wanders out of the rock category and drifts sleepily into dream-pop realms. Rather than crunchy guitars and wailing vocals, Owen’s music is a delicate, intimate excursion into ethereal pop guitars, soft synth washes, and sweetly breathed singing.
But this is far from a bad thing. Kinsella is adept at creating these little gems of tunes that seem at once fragile and comforting. This is a solid album of solid pop, done up in the whispy dream-pop style, but obviously well crafted and constructed. The simple, elegant melodies that Kinsella draws from his guitar are the songs’ major focal point, with soft fills from various keyboard tones and rhythm instruments for hooks, but his voice is also captivating in itself. Kinsella half sings, half whispers his lyrics in a strangely hypnotic way that may or may not be aided by voice modulators. And like a train ride on a gray-skyed day, with the scenery rolling past windows in a blur of soft, earthen tones, Kinsella manages to make each track poignantly beautiful.
However, there are some misfires as well. The biggest problem is that the tone of the album is almost uniformly even. Kinsella’s singing changes little, if at all, from track to track, and the guitar melodies seem more to shift into something else than actually distinguish themselves as separate songs. The end result is that the album almost seems like one long song. At moments, this is obviously intentional. Track two is titled “Most Days And”, and simply moves straight into track three, titled “Most Nights”, without a pause. The cymbal crash that ends one song is really the beginning of the next as the disc moves along. But this definitely adds to the homogeneity problem. It becomes difficult to pay attention to any one song, and the album has the unfortunate tendency to lull me into sleep on a semi-regular basis. The one time the disc breaks form is the ending of “Accidentally”. In an otherwise elegant and near perfect instrumental piece, Kinsella decides to end the song with a high-pitched keening that drones on for well over 30 seconds. Especially with how compelling and calming the rest of the disc is, this jarring moment is almost ridiculously pointless.
There’s also a question of lyrical content. Although “Declaration of Incompetence” has some brilliantly worded visual imagery, there’s the fact that at its heart it’s about as weepy as any emo track. Self-deprecating lyrics are certainly not the exclusive territory of emo, but there’s an approach of blunt humorlessness that seems to be more in tune with the indie-rock/emo background that Kinsella comes from than with the dreamy, lush melodies that he’s playing.
But aside from these few trip ups, Owen is a gorgeous piece of work. As Owen, Kinsella has taken a brilliant step out from under the umbrella of traditional indie rock and delivered a beautiful pop album. It’s not quite perfect, but very little ever is. Kinsella establishes himself as a craftsman of lovely tunes with this debut, and hopefully the strength of this album is an indicator of a rich mine of material from which he can draw in the future.