Mike Kinsella’s plaintive, soft-focus emoting and neatly manicured guitar harmonies were not imported into Owls, but the fascination with off-kilter percussive rhythms and jazz improv were; and yet, Kinsella was up to the task as a drummer, having made incredible strides since being forced into action as a 12-year old when Cap’n Jazz’s original drummer left to pursue actual American football. Villareal and Zurick were involved in Ghosts And Vodka, one of the earliest examples of the unrequited affection between Chicago emo and Chicago post-rock, which tended to treat the former like an annoying kid brother; Ghosts And Vodka’s 2001 debut Precious Blood could best be described as an emo Tortoise with poop jokes; apparently, “I want to salt your poop and wear it on my face like a beard” was inscribed on the liner notes for the CD, which is probably your best bet for actually hearing the thing. It’s unavailable on streaming platforms, and there are several tracks that didn’t make it onto the 2020 vinyl repress because of “audio quality issues.” The only thing really missing are the shoutalong hooks and singsong melodies, easy enough to attribute to Von Bohlen, who helmed the most pop-focused and successful of Cap’n Jazz’s many offshoots.
The growth of each as a musician was obvious, though in shifting from pure Midwestern emo to mutt-like math rock, Owls triggered the typical joke about the genre: They’re either virtuosos or they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. Villareal first arrived to Cap’n Jazz band practice as a teenage, acid-dropping metalhead playing Randy Rhoads’ “Dee.” In the time since, his style had become far less technical in the Guitar Center sense and more bespoke. On Owls, his sweep-picking past occasionally cropped up in the giddy intro riff of “Everyone Is My Friend” and the blinding runs of “I Want The Blindingly Cute To Confide In Me,” as did the occasional hint of alternate-tuned jangle; outlier “Life In The Hair Salon-Themed Bar On The Island” ran American Football through a RAT Distortion pedal.
Otherwise, it’s abundantly clear why Owls could never be as influential as American Football: Tune your guitar to FACGCE and move a chord shape around, it’ll probably sound pretty, whereas Villareal’s style is impossible to replicate, taunting amateur tabs by working in incomprehensible rhythms and percussive tics. For the most part, he sounds like he’s tickle-torturing his guitar or crumbling his strings into tinfoil. With Villareal and the vocal melodies going off in frequently opposite directions, Mike Kinsella and Zurick somehow keep things grounded. I’m not even sure “math rock” really qualifies, since that term implies a logical and countable rhythm, whereas Owls follows some kind of algebraic equation, its time signatures constantly mutating. They could replicate the free-flowing sway of jazz, the prickly post-punk of Modest Mouse, or the egghead deconstructions of post-rock; there’s also an unstable and elliptical nature to their musicianship that suggests it would sound completely different if they recorded a week later.
Owls sure didn’t sound much like anything else happening at the time, certainly nothing that would be framed as “emo.” Even beyond the major crossover events happening earlier in the year — The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most, Stay What You Are, Bleed American — Owls was an odd outlier in Jade Tree’s 2001 release slate, loaded with the variously straight-ahead likes of Strike Anywhere, Pedro The Lion, and Milemarker. Meanwhile, Appleseed Cast’s staggering double-LP Low Level Owl was more in line with what “post-rock” meant for populist-leaning, indie rock bands of that time, i.e., Radiohead, Sigur Rós, or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Owls’ oblong-shaped takes on post-rock, post-punk, and post-jazz earned time-stamped comparisons to Don Caballero, Frank Zappa, and Captain Beefheart, but also Pavement and Sunny Day Real Estate (The Pink Album, I suppose). What Owls didn’t sound much like was Cap’n Jazz; with one major exception (“Everyone Is My Friend”), nothing here bore the innocence or ebullience of “Little League” or “Oh Messy Life” or anything else that could’ve been shouted out in dank DIY houses across Big Ten country.
It’s just as well, seeing as how Kinsella never felt aligned with emo, even as Cap’n Jazz were intermingled with Braid, Indian Summer, and many other bands that became definitive articles of the genre. In Your War, he demurred on the e-word, describing Cap’n Jazz as “weirdo punk,” an attribution that seems more true of Owls. And yet, if there’s any contributor whose stylistic tics tie back to Cap’n Jazz, it’s actually Tim Kinsella. Although infused eith his typical verbal gamesmanship, Owls is the most lyrically legible work he’s ever created. “I enjoy myself!” Kinsella shouts on a song titled “I Want The Blindingly Cute To Confide In Me,” which… obviously. “Anyone Can Have A Good Time” rests on a mantra of “We fall into patterns quickly/ We fall into patterns too quickly”; it just takes about five minutes for him to get there. The first song is titled “What Whorse You Wrote Id On” for reasons only known to Tim Kinsella, though the sleuth work required to decode “Life In The Hair Salon-Themed Bar On The Island” and “For Nate’s Brother Whose Name I Never Knew Or Can’t Remember” was feasible even with 2001’s search engine capacity; the former refers to the Beauty Bar nightclub chain, the latter to their cousin and future American Football utility man Nate Kinsella.
But otherwise, Owls is based at the same emotional pitch as Shmap’n Shmazz, only Kinsella seems to know what to do with it this time around. At times, it’s playing the all-knowing social oracle: “Have you yet met the new guys?/ Let’s play who here would’ve gone Nazi,” he mutters, referencing a 1941 Harper’s article that was thrust back into the discourse for obvious reasons in 2017. “Would you two like each other? Or are you too alike,” he chides on “Everyone Is My Friend,” the title itself a knowing wink at what would otherwise appear to be an entire career based on “I’m not here to make friends.” “I’m sick again/ In a blizzard lit by city streets/ All the night’s salt and limes have come to light,” he sings on “Holy Fucking Ghost,” his side gig as a bartender giving a view from both angles at the cyclical nature of being depressed and drinking away the depression. Clearly, he’s not in a position to judge: “Our days are just unjustifiable/ And our nights are given only to forgetting/ And each morning all I know is I’ll be no good come night/ And each night all I know is I’ll be no good come morning.”
It’s all there, an advanced version of the urges that beset and perplexed him as a teenager: friendship, the social contract, the Smiths, alcohol, sex and lots of it. Don’t let the titles of “I Want The Blindingly Cute To Confide In Me” and “I Want The Quiet Moments Of A Party Girl” fool you, as I did as a super-sensitive college student who would’ve used those as objectives on my resume. “Anything I can mistake in the dark for being what I’m looking for is good enough for me,” that’s the first damn line on the record. And on the closing “Holy Fucking Ghost,” Kinsella more or less admits to masturbating with Jesus — insofar as Tim Kinsella will plainly admit to anything.