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Owls
Two Nancy Bennie , March 31st, 2014 10:31

My dear friend Mike sacrifices the majority of his spare time and income in pursuit of his life goal - initiating the return of bearded flare-garblers Abba. He is the proud owner of an original, boxfresh Agnetha doll. To afford this he sold his Playstation 2. In his "special drawer" sits a highly collectable cuboid of azure fat entitled 'Abba: The Toilet Soap' and every year he puts on 'Abbadance' in which the weird and wonderful online community gather to do exactly that. His enthusiasm is inspiring, despite their reunion being about as likely as a late-night kebab not tasting absolutely great.

Fortunately, I've never had to go to such sequined lengths to encourage a band close to my heart to get on with getting on, it just happened. When Chicago underground-overlords Owls pipetted out internet hint-drips in 2012 that something was stirring in their waters after many years apart, this was a big deal. This was my Abba reunion. Owls' self-titled debut from 2001 is a record so perfect, becoming homeless, contracting Ebola and dying from external rectal bleeding is preferable to selling my copy, it truly is as rare and as freakish as volcanic lightning. The off-kilter time switcharounds, swathes of space and minuscule nuances of flair were quite the challenge, but once you actually got the record, its non-immediacy made it all the sweeter, like finally completing a next-level-hard, Fort Knox 3D jigsaw.   Crucially, at the time of this startling debut, Owls already were a significant reincarnation of the unique, candescent, Tasmanian Devil punk band Cap'n Jazz, whose brief existence was equal to the birth and death of a blue giant star - blindingly bright, short-lived and supernova-causing upon its death. Whilst it would be foolish to understate their influence, at the time these teenage best-buds played to small audiences within a very localised scene, alongside bands like Gauge and Friction. Only years after their implosion did they become the apotheosis of all things twinkley and emo-ish, a status that still dumbfounds the group.

Owls disintegrated shortly after their debut, but each member's musical pathways converged and diverged many times since, taking a diagram as sprawling as phylogenetic tree of life to fully demonstrate the various projects and side projects of projects stemming from these four individuals (the most significant being Owen, Make Believe, Ghosts And Vodka, and, of course, Joan Of Arc). Given the amount of pies their fingers are stuffed in, you'd imagine their hands would be gross stubs from piping-hot filling scalds but, thankfully, this is not the case. All considered, then, this re-reunion is comparable to those full-cast Blackadder Christmas specials, if they were actually any good, or when Pink Floyd returned onstage for Live 8 and sang hatefully through gritted teeth, except no one in Owls is a gnarly-faced prick like Roger Waters. 

And so, after ploughing away at the Joan of Arc practice space for 18 months, alongside conflicting schedules of children, long commutes, dog-training, decorating a very old house, other bands, and managing an empanada restaurant food-truck, the logically titled Two is finally here (potential subtitles include Owls Two: The Returned, Owls Two: When Nature Calls and Owls Two: Owl Harder.) Given the history, it's impossible not to have pre-conceived ideas of what Two will be. You expect guitarist Victor Villarreal's moth-trapped-in-a-lampshade fret circumnavigation, Sam Zurick's double-disjointed bass, the loosey-goosey jazz-drum ornamentation of Mike Kinsella and hope for his brother Tim's jabsaw crooner-yelp. Even Tim himself recently acknowledged the cruiserweight of anticipation: "everyone that's interested in Owls has had thirteen years of living with this one record, so there's no way that the second one can be equal." Although a complete re-hash of the first record might be temporarily awesome, it's a shit-tonne more interesting to hear where the band's heads are at here and now. Surely no one wants to be spoon-fed the same old-same old, and Owls sure as hell didn't want to make it.

In the past, Owls' songcraft was an "even democracy" and this formula remains consistent thirteen years on with each individual still able to naturally react upon Villarreal's glitterriff-foundations. Once again, the LP cover is made up of four mysterious self-portrait collages, set against the very same squares of secondary colours (not unlike Queen's electro-tash masterpiece Hot Space), fully cementing their identities back within the group.  Noise-rock's very own Surly Joe, Steve Albini, engineered the last album, whereas Two was laid down in Strobe Studios at the hands of Neil Strauch. As to be expected the mix is different; it's chunkier and the drums are a little quieter than I would prefer, but all in all the band's essence is intact. If anything, its Tim's headspace that appears most removed from their debut. Through the two year process of song tinkering, what's left is some of his most naked lyrics and atypically straight-forward song titles. Previous T. Kinsella titles have included 'What Whorse You Wrote Id On' and '(You) [I] Can Not See (You) [Me] As (I) [You] Can', yet on Two each song is clinically named after its first lyric-line, stripping away any "clever"-clutter, with only the meat-and-bones of the music remaining. Furthermore, Tim's additional guitar chimes deliver a more standard rock-band set up, accounting for the enhanced ruggedness of the whole thing.

Much like the first LP, Two rewards after repeated listens and is not some immediate, dopamine agonist ear-hug. 'This Must Be How....' lifts and shifts all over the place time-wise, packing a crunch that is both nimble and seriously damage-inflicting, like Spyro the Dragon in full effect. Zurick's self-styled "doom-motown" bass impressively deciphers 'Oh No, Don't....'s riff-encryptions and the metallic-math of 'I'll Never Be....' is almost reminiscent of avant-bastards Dysrhythmia, in a really good way. 'Ancient Stars Seed....' is, on the other hand, among their most instant work ever - a whirligig of Villarreal's signature pick-pirouettes and a huge, rollicking vocal from Tim that's as bracing as the eye-stinging winds of seaside-crudtown Skegness. Every time he sings "we've never had nice stuff", referring to their lack of income and fancy-schmancy effects pedals, I'm joyously compelled to rush out and buy them a ridiculous mound of nice stuff.

Some tracks are so far-flung from the usual Owls sound that had I first heard them in, say, a depressing motorway petrol station purchasing a Toffee Crisp, I may never have twigged they were a Kinsella product. For example, on opener 'Four Works Of Art....' (potentially a nod to their cover portraits, but I'm no Robert T. Ironside) interlocked, Lungfishy guitar-gyres teasingly spiral around for what feels like forever before an afterlife-like version of Tim appears floating about, chanting "I know, I know" shaman-style. Two's final track 'A Drop Of Blood...' is one of the most straight-up chord-strummers I've ever heard from these four chaps in their various guises and, despite this, it's still probably a highlight of the LP, that will undoubtedly be all the more pwning live. Plus, Tim's vocal is pure rage-restraint, as if he's just non-accidentally crushed a baby snail with his shoe.

In short, Two sounds like Owls really ought to in 2014 – as melancholic and complex as they've always been whilst expanding their sound as a second album should. How many other bands can unite after 25 years of writing together and still create something that's genuinely worth getting excited about? I can only really think of ZZ Top. And maybe The Village People. But that's truly it. Life's been a giant slab of mallow-laden rocky road with false starts, double false starts, sibling tensions and might-as-well-be-sibling tensions for this bunch, so it's pretty amazing they've even made it to this point, let alone put out a record which is all at once as pleasantly confusing and discordant and shimmering as coming down with nitrogen narcosis mid-sea dive. So I say thank you for the music, for giving it to me.

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