Owls: Two

[24 March 2014]

By Robert Rubsam

Two is a weird record, in the same sense that Owls is a weird band. It follows no particular flow, and yet its structures are not exactly unorthodox. I bend my tongue to explain it precisely because it shouldn’t be so hard to explain. And yet neither is it strange in the same way that the band and its self-titled debut were when they last poked their heads above the surface over a decade ago. This is what makes Two such a joyful, if occasionally off-putting, listen.

This album technically implies a third reunion for Owls, whose first record was nominally a reunion of Midwest emo greats Cap’n Jazz, minus guitarist Davey Von Bohlen, then of the Promise Ring and now a Milwaukee-area tax accountant. But whereas Owls and its off-kilter guitar arpeggios (courtesy of literal wizard Victor Villareal) would later provide a template for the unwashed hordes of twinkly whiners now masquerading as an “emo revival”, Two seems unlikely to do any such thing. Its chunky post-hardcore riffs and unfolding fractal structures recall math rock so much as anything, though of a sort heard at the wrong speed and maybe through a broken speaker. Villareal frequently overdubs his own lines, sometimes harmonizing but mostly layering, tapping in one ear while syncopating palm-muted chords or harmonics in the other, as during “It Collects Itself…”. His playing, especially in solo project Ghosts & Vodka, has always been a revelation, and it absolutely steals the show here.

Still, weirdness only goes so far without a structure to contain it. And strangest of all, the outlines in place are actually very straightforward, even if Tim Kinsella is howling above it all. “I’m Surprised…” (yes, every song title includes an ellipsis) adheres to a standard verse-chorus-verse pattern, taking fractured guitar work and bass lines and uniting them, along with Kinsella’s best melodies on the album, into a beautifully grooving bridge. Kinsella’s brother Mike (of Owen, American Football, etc etc) utilizes looping tom work to give Villareal’s riffs heft and swing, giving “The Lion…” a pounding intensity and anchoring what might otherwise approach chaos.

In these moments, Two delivers on its promise of weirdness by giving it purpose. These don’t feel like lines pitted against one another, but a series of angles fitting together just so and providing the listener with an at times impenetrable mass. This perhaps contributes to the album’s biggest drawback: beyond a few songs, I never feel drawn to re-listen. There is a method to this, as those few songs change every time I listen to the album, some times preferring “I’m Surprised…”, at others the jagged noise of “I’ll Never Be…”. Two is certainly a good album, and it’s absolutely the one Owls wanted to make. It’s just not always a record I want to listen to.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/179886-owls-two/