Owls – ‘Two’

Review by Chris Hampton

I remember when I bought Owls from the record store. The guy at the till popped open the jewel case, prying underneath the plastic cover at either end of the spine and used the sticker that wraps around the opening as a hinge. I have no idea why, “to check for the CD” or something, but it stuck with me. My copy, which is either floating around in the trunk of my car or stuffed in a moving box somewhere back at my parents’ house, still has that sticker wrapped across the opening. I opened Owls’ case (and only that case) that way every time — a trivial little ritual that gained traction in my 16-year-old mind, sopping up everything from, sure, the cult of cool record store clerks, but, especially, the arcane masterstrokes Tim Kinsella and co. had etched into that very disc. That small ritual was just how the ceremony waiting inside began.

To this day, Owls are my favourite Kinsella project. They’re all of the spazzy exuberance of Cap’n Jazz (all of the talent short the Promise Ring guy, too), that whole jumpstart post-hardcore tumult, channelled into a brooding, mathier expression — something grown wiser and sharper with age. That they disappeared after just a single transmission only grew their mystique. And now they’ve returned 13 years hence — an emo second coming of the most welcome variety.

Two, out March 25 on Polyvinyl, underscores that Owls is the strongest line-up in the very tall, very branchy Kinsella family tree. Tim is the cryptic genius, Victor Villarreal is dizzying on the fretboard, Mike K. forgets all about Owen and snaps back to those jazzy kick and tom rolls, and Sam Zurick fastens the whole skittering, pulsing thing together. “Four Works of Art…,” with its call and response chorus and lockstep rhythm, delves right back into the mischievous intelligence that the band defined on Owls. In fact, track three, “The Lion…,” could’ve appeared on that first record. “I’m Surprised…” and “This Must Be How… ” see Villarreal’s twinkling, plinking work displaced by more classic riffing — Owls do ‘90s indie rock! Owls do epic guitar jams! If there seemed something esoteric or challenging about Owls, time has strengthened their pop songcraft. Weirdo math tunes can have hooks, too. See?

And that gets at the package of readymade questions facing any reformation more than a decade removed from the band’s last outing: is this just a cash-in on nostalgia (they say there’s an emo revival), do they still have the chemistry, will they sound like themselves or pander to contemporary fads? On Two, an album anticipated for 13 years, Owls manages to navigate these landmines nimbly. What they’ve come up with is certainly a sating feast for those who’ve been waiting, literally, the lifetime of a young teenager for more Owls, but it’s also an endearing introduction to an entirely new generation (the one that’s come of age in the meantime) for which the name Kinsella, as influential as it is, has yet to earn much currency. Even twenty years into their recording career, this feels like a perfect stop to hop aboard.