by Fred Thomas
One of the better ideas to have come from the hardcore scene is that no matter what you have to express, if you’re gonna be heard, you’re gonna have to scream. When a band expresses the most fragile of emotions through frantic howling, anger and joy can happen at the same time. Never had screams sounded so sweet as those of archetypal emo pioneers Cap’n Jazz. In its brief existence in the early ‘90s, this band of Chicago high-school kids captured in sound all of the purity, urgency, longing and confused introspection of youth and — screaming and smiling all the way — unleashed it on a world that was all but completely uninterested. After the band’s demise, members quickly re-emerged with the bouncy pop of the Promise Ring and the highly conceptual sound collage of Joan of Arc. It wasn’t until these bands came into relative popularity that Cap’n Jazz was credited as groundbreaking and definers of what had become the post-hardcore/emo rock sound.
Being ahead of your time can have its problems. And it’s hard to tell now, but Owls might face similar drawbacks. With the exception of Davey von Bohlen (still busy with the Promise Ring), Owls finds all the original members of Cap’n Jazz here, but it is by no means a reunion. The eight songs on this debut album churn uneasily through odd-metered repetitions and a general sense of sprawling seasickness, definitely closer to dense post-rock than hardcore nostalgia. Sputtering firecracker drumming, moody percussion and disjointed guitar weave obtuse mathematical grooves, at times breaking into more simplistic themes. Vocalist Tim Kinsella might be an obstacle for some listeners. Between his signature broken-yelp vocals and disorganized delivery, he comes off more as reading randomly from a worn-out notebook of bad poetry than of singing in any practiced manner.
As with later Joan of Arc releases, overtly pretentious, play-on-words lyrics and intentionally recurring melodies spin in circles, offering a few conceptual starting points, but not too much in the way of exciting listening. Despite the sometimes difficult, art-school-dropout vibe, parts of the record do grow on you. After a few listens, the dark opening track, “What Whorse You Wrote Id On,” loses some of its relentless push and even becomes catchy in a lurching sort of way. Owls’ best moments come when the band members seem to forget themselves and play less, as on “Everyone Is My Friend.”
Anyone who had their fingers crossed for Owls to pick up where Cap’n Jazz left off will probably be disappointed. The sentimental yelling about angels and kitty cats has been replaced with something far more sinister and decidedly its own thing. Brand-new, for sure, and maybe a little bit ahead of its time, but screaming and smirking all the way.
Owls perform tonight (Wednesday, Oct. 3) at Magic Stick.
E-mail Fred Thomas at email@example.com.