Much like the recently-reunited Owls, the unfortunately short-lived American Football was a group formed from the remnants of seminal Midwest-based 1990s emo band Cap’n Jazz (whose members went on to form a seemingly endless number of great bands). Unlike Owls who set about making rhythmic post-punk however, American Football’s lineup of Mike Kinsella (guitar, bass, vocals), Steve Lamos (drums, trumpet), and Steve Holmes (guitar) crafted an influential brand of emo music that provided a more mature alternative to what one might typically accept that genre to be all about. The group’s only full-length album, a 1999 self-titled effort, has gradually come to be accepted as one of the finest genre releases of its day or perhaps, ever, prompting a two-disc re-issue in 2014 by Polyvinyl Records. Roughly doubling the length of the album, this deluxe edition contains ten bonus tracks, including several demo and practice tracks as well as a handful of live recordings. All in all, it’s a great package for old and new fans alike.
Though the nine-track American Football album is solid from top to bottom and boasts excellent production, Mike Kinsella’s vocals may be the main reason why it has stood the test of time. Whereas many emo musicians provided screamed, intense vocals, Kinsella’s approach is often relaxed and almost lazy, more about introspection than an obvious, violent release of pent-up emotion. Combined with complicated but laid back drumming and guitar work, the entire album seems level-headed and calming, exuding an almost dreamy vibe that allows the listener to connect with the lyrics and drift away on them. Generally speaking, most of the songs here sound upbeat despite lyrical subject matter that’s occasionally a bit gloomy. Only one track (“I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional”) has a more despairing feel to it, but even this piece metamorphoses into a more cheerful one by its conclusion.
Of all the outstanding songs on this album, many of which play mostly as instrumentals due to their restrained use of vocals, third track “Honestly?” may be the one that best indicates what American Football was shooting for. Beginning with the all-telling lyric “Honestly I can't remember / All my teenage feelings / And the meanings / They seemed too see-through / To be true,” the entire song deals with developing as a person and not being held up or distracted by past mistakes. This idea is cemented by the instrumental parts which, after a bouncy opening section, work into a loud, almost meditative loop during the song’s middle stretch. A soaring guitar solo over the repeating, droning chords has an uplifting effect on the listener that replicates the feeling of reaching an epiphany, thus ensuring that the message of the piece does indeed hit home. It’d be difficult for me to choose a song that better represents this album as a whole: “Honestly?” is a brilliant combination of thoughtful lyrics and musical parts that accentuate the themes of those lyrics. Like many here, this piece has definitive “emo” imagery and themes (“picture this: the long awaited sickening kiss...”), but instead of getting angry or aggressive at any point, Kinsella’s lyrics throughout the song (and album) suggest a more grown-up mindset and approach by which a person simply handles a situation and moves on. It’s supremely refreshing for a genre in which singers and groups frequently get caught up and indeed wallow in misery and heartbreak.
The deluxe edition bonus disc kicks off with Kinsella’s onstage introduction of the group prior to a 1997 performance and a live version of “Five Silent Miles,” an instrumental which appeared on the band’s self-titled 1998 EP. Slightly faster and a bit more sparse in its sound than the album version, the track nonetheless sounds warmer due to the differing guitar accompaniment. Next, we have seven tracks recorded during practice sessions, including alternate versions of four album cuts as well as three previously unreleased, untitled songs. The recording quality here is on the hissy side but decent, and perhaps the best thing about these tracks is that they allow a listener to focus almost exclusively on the intricacies of the instrumental parts during the songs that feature vocals. It’s also pretty cool to hear and notice the subtle changes to the songs that occurred between the time of these sessions and the actual recording of the album.
While the previously unreleased, untitled tracks provide an insight into the process of creating the American Football album, undoubtedly the most fascinating new track included here is an instrumental entitled “The 7’s,” recorded live in 1997. This lengthy (seven and a half minute) track is unbridled creativity in action, as all the players in the band essentially play their own thing at different tempos, continuing to improvise and expand on the basic ideas of their parts as the track goes along. Finally, after speeding up, slowing down, and getting weird (at one point while playing a second guitar part, Kinsella throws the opening riff of “Jessie’s Girl” into the song at a ridiculously slowed-down tempo apparently in an attempt to throw the other members of the band off), all the parts combine for a typically low-key finale. “The 7’s,” which acted as the closing number to most of the group’s early live sets, may not be something that many listeners would want to rock out to, but this experimental, constantly evolving piece precisely indicates the level of familiarity these players had with one another. A composition of this nature simply wouldn’t have been possible if this wasn’t the case.
The original American Football album deserves its reputation as a classic due to its unique and influential, relaxed and contemplative approach, and I think it will continue to win over fans even fifteen years after its initial release. I’m not sure that many of the bonus tracks included on this two-disc, deluxe edition would individually bowl a listener over, but the total package (which also contains extensive, illustrated liner notes and lyrics) is excellent. This release would probably be a must for fans who have been waiting for new material from this group for a decade and a half, and it’s also a great place for those unfamiliar with the group to start out. The more subtle and understated American Football may not appeal to those seeking instant gratification or immediate expression of life’s highs and lows, but this extraordinarily poignant and supremely gorgeous album is ideal for the more mature listener who has moved beyond their “teen dreams.”
9.0 / 10
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