Music

Owen: No Good For No One Now

David Antrobus

Owen

No Good for No One Now

Label: Polyvinyl
US Release Date: 2002-11-19
UK Release Date: 2002-11-18
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This awkwardly titled release featuring seven longish songs best described as "emo folk" by a generically named artist wrapped in nauseatingly cute cover art which features a chubby blonde toddler holding three fluffy yellow chicks is, like, classic negative attention seeking or something. Whoever's responsible is just willing people to dismiss it, right?

Any reaction is better than indifference, in other words. Well, perhaps. But let's get below the surface for a moment here. Owen is actually Mike Kinsella, who made a distinct impression with his band American Football after previously taking a back seat (literally, since he was the drummer) to older brother Tim in Cap'n Jazz, Joan of Arc, and Owls. Here, he ventures even further; writing, arranging and performing . . . well, everything.

For those not predisposed toward a love of diary-derived bittersweet acoustic balladry, the warnings are plain and unequivocal. If Bright Eyes makes you roll your eyes, for instance, please move along, there's nothing to see here. Yet, for those who resist the urge to prejudge, there is more to this record than these ominous warnings might suggest. Sure, this is fairly low-key fare, but there are subtleties amid the pastel shadings that may yet reward the attentive and the patient.

All seven songs lie in the long shadow of a failed relationship. What might have been an extended tantrum is mostly rescued by quirkily honest lyrics, a quizzically lethargic vocal delivery, and a perversely mellifluous melodic beauty. A straightforward acoustic strum opens "Nobody's Nothing", before Kinsella's sometimes-languorous and sometimes-grating voice begins to paint in the details of a relationship meltdown, with both wry self-recrimination ("I know you're bleeding internally and you're in pain / But you've only yourself to blame") and tenuous outrage ("Go on, get out of here / I never asked to be nobody's nothing").

Most of the songs begin with unabashed and fairly straightforward acoustic folk pickings. In this, they conform to all expectations. But then, something skewed happens. Whether a stumbling drum pattern breaking into loose, almost jazz-inflected abandon, or a treated vocal phrase that flips the sense, or some reverse piano or vibraphone loop, such unexpected distortions drape layers of nuance over an otherwise standard skeletal core.

With music like this, lyrics are necessarily prominent, but Kinsella has not neglected to tie these often bewildered and angry sentiments onto a solid and innovative musical framework, even if the parameters might seem limiting. Hence, he can get away with the painful "What else in this fucking room / Reminds me of fucking you?" ("The Ghost of What Should've Been") partly due to the audacity of a brief electric guitar solo, and inventive stick work behind the kit; yet equally falls flat on his petulant face when "it's my right to be a fucking baby sometimes" ("I'm Not Going Anywhere Tonight") suddenly overwhelms an otherwise fairly understated song, like a cartoon Conor Oberst exploding in a chapel.

Summoning the ghost of Smith's-era Morrissey, the lonely-last-call-at-the-bar "Poor Souls" flirts with parody ("I swear to God I'll die if I go home alone tonight"), before nearly redeeming itself with a piano figure that drips like incongruous hope, even if it's a damaged hope: "Which one of you poor souls wants to drive me home?" That's the odd thing about this record: what can feel whiny and self-pitying on first inspection can alternately feel profoundly sad or acerbically bitter on subsequent spins. Backhanded reassurances like "if you're not sure who you are, you're not alone" have a habit of degenerating into muted misanthropy -- "Hey come on over / You bring the drinks . . . / I'll bring the 'fuck you's'" ("Everyone Feels Like You") -- only to slowly fade out with gorgeous glistening keys and a delicately picked guitar coda over lurching shuffling drums.

There is pain here, and yet it's not a predominantly bleak kind of misery. While some of the aforementioned lyrics may wallow almost embarrassingly in their vulnerability (yet, really, who hasn't been there?), Kinsella does remind himself (us) that "a head that aches doesn't have to stay that way" and even brings sly humour to the table (or at least to the barstool): "You, in love with the Cocteau Twins / You're bored with your boyfriend" ("Poor Souls"). And the music itself is a kind of antidote, wrapping warm soothing arms around the stark shivering confessor at the core. No Good For No One Now can certainly try your patience on a number of levels (e.g., 10 meandering minutes for the final song "Take Care of Yourself", when five would have sufficed), but ultimately this record's saving grace is the sheer incongruity of its often harsh yet unblinking honesty set amid such sweet sonic confectionery.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


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