The Owls all share song credits on their debut release, though it’s clear that despite holding their own as individual songwriters, they’ve come together in service to their shared high brow pop chops. It’s a subtle and reserved catchiness, which begins on the first track, carving a featherweight groove into your head upon first listen.
“Air” takes lyrics that sound like a stilted list and folds them back in on terraced harmonies that tidally echo back like reverb. Not to mention it has the fine distinction of a miserable chorus uttered with gauzy dolly detachment: “there is only air, where I used to care”. Maria May’s voice has a sweet downtrodden lilt that makes me think of tea steam and writing on the inside of rainy windows. She’s like Nico doing the after half of an anxiety medication ad. The Owls get much traction out of this combination of pop breeziness and melancholy melody, buoying their sorrowful gloss with songs that beg to be memorized and tapped out by a scuffing tennis shoe.
Allison LaBonne drops her song in the second slot and the record begins to sound like a singles collection. She plays big bad wolf in a slurry patch of harmonizing with Maria May on “Do Ya?”, a love song filtered through Little Red Hiding Hood metaphors. LaBonne’s voice has a much thicker, huskier pull to it, like Laetitia Sadier from Stereolab. On “Luck”, the Owls give themselves more fully to lament and yet it’s the track where they hit some of the starkest, most achingly pretty notes, like a Sundays song drowning in a reflecting pool. “Baby Boy” could be a Belle & Sebastian duet with Peggy Lee; it’s baroque pop with a bit of torched out drama. I kept expecting the timpani drums to roll in over crashing string swells from the orchestra pit. This song sounds literally like chamber pop, as in chamber music, not just songs with roomy interiors and stuck-up bombast for mood. The guitar work on Our Hopes and Dreams does much to fashion a muddy, ornate feel, because notes frequently sound like gently disturbed water surfaces, distorted enough to bleed but not enough to sound like feedback squawk.
The Owls expertly pluck your heartstrings, not to get you dewy-eyed, but just to coax you into that quiet, staring into nothing zone. “Even Now” evokes old school Elton John, back before he sold his bloated corpse to Vegas and when he could instantly stir nostalgia for experiences you’ve never had. Many of the tracks on Our Hopes and Fears seem to be aiming for that misty-socketed pop, though admittedly with an contemporary, bookish restraint that would prevent them from being the Darkness’s equivalent in twee . Only “Forever Changing” sounds misguided, like a Beatles song redone for the worst adult contemporary radio in town. It’s the only time that the Owls’ sound comes off as gutted fluff. Brian Tighe does much better when he doesn’t sound like Christopher Cross laughing instead of crying when he thinks of Laura.
At eight songs and a little over 20 minutes, this is one of those releases that straddles the invisible line between album and EP, but either way, it’s too brief and left me hungering for more, as if someone had given me communion wafers to make a sandwich with. The Owls provide a warm fireside chair for their bespectacled songwriting. I read somewhere that two of them are librarians. If your occupation ciphers your creativity and people morph into their pets, then I guess the Owls are good afternoon reading indeed.