Review Summary: One of the best examples of 90s post-rock leaning bands.
Around 1994, as grunge moved even farther from its Seattle roots and into the major studios, what was once considered the most important of the alternative genres faded into pop radio fodder. Around the same time as grunge’s fall from the alternative throne bands like Chicago’s Tortoise began making music that sharply contrasted the ham-fisted approach of grunge bands. Post-rock, as the genre was named, had more focus on timbre and sonic diversity than on angst-ridden lyricism and sloppy guitar work. Mixing free-jazz’s tendency towards improvisation and modern rock’s song structure post-rock was characterized by endless repetition, limited vocals, and soaring, reverb filled guitar lines. In the wake of Tortoise’s debut the Chicago music scene exploded with post-rock acts following similar patterns of mellow, improvisation filled albums. Although many bands found critical success with these early post-rock releases it was undoubtedly American Football, who fused post-rock leanings with lyrics and vocals most akin to emo bands like vocalist Mike Kinsella’s previous band Cap’n Jazz, that still stands as one of the landmark bands of the late ‘90s.
Formed in 1997, American Football was from the college town of Urbana, Illinois. They were a short-lived trio that only released one LP album in 1999, along with two short EPs with limited distribution. From the outset of the album it’s clear that it is a homemade, indie record. The first song features a brief sound-check and one of the band members asking in the background “are we ready?” and then counting the song off. Despite its obviously unprofessional start, “Never Meant”, is easily one of the standout tracks on the album. It features the trademark dual guitar approach, with one guitar repeating the same riff and the other either doubling the riff or playing higher guitar lines with more reverb. The song also has one of the best vocal hooks on the album. Long instrumental interludes are broken up by emotive vocals with lyrics at home with early emo bands. Songs like “The Summer Ends” and “The One with the Wurlitzer” have a lone trumpet sounding melodies in the intros which gives the music an even more calming sound. While some tracks do get lost in their endless repetition, sometimes that isn’t a bad thing. The music is meant to be quiet and peaceful but also complex; sometimes it’s easy to overlook the changing meters and technical rhythms of drummer Steve Lamos. On a closer listen to almost every track the technicality of the music is immense, but the real skill behind the music is not in the chops of the band but instead the ability they have in making music that doesn’t sound forcibly complex. The band writes very pop melodies but plays them in ways that expand the ideas, like on the song “I’ll See You When We’re Both Not so Emotional”.
On the whole this album flows from song to song with little filler, making it a cohesive collection of songs. While some may find it repetitive or boring, it isn’t meant to be the most exciting album ever. If anything, it’s meant to relax the listener. From the cover art to the last track this is an Illinois album, it captures the feelings of small town loneliness through its long, wistful instrumental passages and it definitely deserves its place among the best in the Chicago music scene.