Reviews Owen New Leaves

Owen

New Leaves

Most people who listen to Owen are all-too-aware of what I like to call the Kinsella continuum. Chicago-based brothers Mike and Tim are responsible for some of the more infamous 90’s Midwest bands, being the minds behind Cap’n Jazz, American Football, Owls, and the ever-revolving doors of Joan of Arc. Their prolific nature has even brought in younger brother Nate for their more recent project Make Believe. Amongst this chaos lies Owen, the moniker for Mike Kinsella’s solo endeavors, which has graced us with a number of releases over the past eight years, the latest being his new full-length, New Leaves.

The first thing you’ll notice about this record is the consistent full-band sound. Owen is known for Mike’s affinity for lush acoustic tracks and soft vocal patterns, which dominate most of his records as well as his live show. New Leaves delves into slightly new territory with a cleaner production value and the introduction of a myriad of new instruments for the project. The result is an album that remains distinctly Kinsella’s style, but this is expanded upon and layered to add a melodic depth that I have been anticipating but not expecting.

New Leaves begins with the title-track, a relatively simple track on which we hear the traditional acoustic licks accented by drums, a piano, and even stretches of electric guitar solos. Kinsella’s patterns and vocal inflections are very much intact, but are elevated to a new level with so many unfamiliar sounds surrounding them. The bridge that leads into a marching-band drum roll and eventually a slow cello pulls at the heartstrings all too well. The album’s single “Good Friends, Bad Habits” does little to push boundaries but is a wonderful showcase of how this style of melody transfers to a full-band sound.

One criticism of Owen that I often hear is the melodic similarities between most of his songs, and this album does not quite escape from that. “A Trenchant Critique” is almost the same progression as “The Sad Waltzes of Pietro Crespi” from 2006’s At Home With Owen. But any musician with such a distinctive approach to his instrument will stumble across these patterns. Kinsella experiments with some different pacing and tempos later on, like in “Amnesia and Me,” where he proclaims, “Now I know who I am / A housebroken one-woman man.”

The best part of the album lies right at the crux, at track eight of ten, “The Only Child of Aergia.” The melancholy melodies benefit from the straightforward percussion that is emphasized by the muted claps on every other beat. As the song progresses, we hear a harp in the background, adding a beautiful layer to this wonderful arrangement. The album closes with the dull and uninspired “Curtain Call,” which leaves a bad taste in my mouth with its awkward lyrics and slow flutes and synth.

This is only somewhat of a new step for Mike Kinsella. Having recorded full-band tracks on almost all of his previous releases, New Leaves may be the most consistent album that he has released, in the sense of retaining style with full instrumentation. A few tracks were disappointments, which rarely happen for an Owen release, but the strong tracks showcase some of his best work. There is a thematic departure away from the heartbroken rants of the past, but it’s a sign of musical and personal maturity that ultimately results in an exceptionally well-executed album. Let’s hope Mike doesn’t go away anytime soon.

8.6 / 10 — Campbell

Owen made being a self-deprecating, guitar-playing romantic a cool thing again. But its 2009 now, and maybe it’s a little played out. Yeah, there will always be a sense of comfort in Kinsella’s wistful melodies and twinkling arpeggios. However, the works of Owen were starting to sound too alike, predictable, or reused. Surprisingly, Owen expands its sound with its fifth full-length, New Leaves, by using instruments rarely (or never) heard in Owen, and focusing on different layers in songs. In its new found variety, one can see that Kinsella has truly departed from doing recordings in his mom’s basement. Yet like many departures, New Leaves can be both refreshing and unappealing to fans of Owen’s earlier works.

As I listened to the first song, title track “New Leaves,” I was impressed by Kinsella’s arrangement of piano, strings, guitar, and xylophone. And yes, the xylophone works perfectly in his songs, and is perhaps my favorite inclusion. A marching snare briefly graces the bridge near the end of the song as Kinsella sings “You’ll spend your whole fucking life walking.” It’s a beautiful song to open the album with, and it’s indicative of the potential Kinsella has to weave various melodies together with more depth. And although I do love bridges, Kinsella abuses them on New Leaves. Halfway through the album I was starting to expect two or three before the song ended. Some, like the piano two minutes in “Good Friends With Bad Habits,” are downright chilling and the sole reason I will listen to the song from start to end. “Never Been Born” is another song that is virtually a giant bridge. I love it though, because it rides out a xylophone riff akin to Sufjan Stevens, and is not typical to Owen’s music.

Sadly, I didn’t react too favorably to the tone of instruments in a few of his songs. Maybe it’s the over-production, or some synth effect, but it’s eerie how clean it sounds. It could be that I’m just an Owen purist, or perhaps I have bias towards earlier recorded versions of some of the songs I’ve heard. Either way, I was not a fan of the way-too-synth tone of the strings in “Good Friends With Bad Habits” or the obnoxious ragtime piano riff on “Ugly on the Inside.” In fact, I kind of get the feeling that Kinsella tacked on many of these arrangements just for the sake of recording, rather than really creating that orchestral sound of “New Leaves” that hooked me from the beginning. Pardon this terrible simile, but it’s like grafting branches onto a tree rather than growing one from a new tree: sure it’s safer, but it’s not as original or creative as it could be.

Furthermore, the album feels really front loaded: all the good stuff can be heard in the first half of the album. “Amnesia and Me” is a cute song with cute imagery, but musically it’s standard Owen fare, and is not on par with the rest of the album. The same can be said for “Too Scared to Move.” “Brown Hair in a Bird’s Nest” is the slow ballad of the album, but forgettable in its plainness. Luckily, Kinsella redeems the album with “The Only Child of Aergia” an airy, yet driving song that features a harp and claps (and a bridge that sounds like Kinsella singing in a watery cave). Unfortunately, that last shred of hope is lost with “Curtain Call”, Kinsella’s contemplative ballad about performing music. Not only are the first few verses painful to listen to, but the lackluster melody is hurt more by the awful flute in the background. It’s a bad note to end such a promising album on.

I had to ponder why Kinsella didn’t accommodate these instruments more in his earlier works: his melodies are already so warm, and these additionally well-produced layers of sound only add more depth to his music. It’s also appreciated that now the songs don’t always focus on an acoustic guitar. I applaud New Leaves foray into more orchestral music, and for better or worse it is Owen’s most accessible album to date. Aside from New Leaves' inclusion of more instruments and better production value, it still disappoints in that it doesn’t show much growth from older albums. New leaves, same old tree.

7.7 / 10 — David
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Polyvinyl

2009

8.15 / 10

8.15 / 10

Reviewed by 2 writers.

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