Review Summary: A short-lived but excellent page in Mike Kinsella's musical career, American Football offers a perfect balance of beauty and brains.
Between his time in Cap'n Jazz and Owen, Mike Kinsella led a short-lived but outstanding band called American Football. Although few things are further from indie rock sensibilities than contact sports, somehow the name seems fitting. This is probably because Kinsella, with drummer Steve Lamos and guitarist Steve Holmes, successfully merges seemingly disparate musical styles to create an album that is complex and beautiful without ever feeling contrived.
Nimble, complicated drumming that would seem at home with more schizophrenic post-rockers such as Te' or Toe propels almost all of the songs, while Kinsella and Holmes create layered, chiming arpeggios through deftly-picked clean guitars. Kinsella's vocal style is comparatively calm and withdrawn, almost evocative of shoegaze's detachment but more clearly indebted to the calmer side of emo. Indeed, emo almost seems the most appropriate descriptor for the band's sound – not the guyliner-wearing popcore associated (perhaps unfairly) with acts like My Chemical Romance, but 90s bands such as Sunny Day Real Estate. But where Sunny Day was loud and explosive, Kinsella replaces with a quick-paced take on Chicago post-rock. The vocals are almost universally dominated by the instrumentation, but the singing lends the songs a completeness that would otherwise be lacking.
“Never Meant” is the opening track and, incidentally, the best on the album. A brisk pace and exhilarating guitar give the song a beautiful sense of yearning as Kinsella sings “I just think it's best / Because you can't miss what you forget.” Just as the band stays musically ahead of most of the pop-rock dubbed emo that would abscond with the title in the early 2000s, Kinsella's emotional state is past depression, past whining, and looking at what comes next and getting over the past rather than dwelling on it. But what is most striking is the balance between beauty and technicality. While these are by no means mutually exclusive, Kinsella and co. are much better than many a fretboard shredder at balancing their technical skill with a finely-tuned sense of melody, lending these songs an air of grace and beauty that comes across as transcendent rather than self-indulgent.
“Summer Ends” is a more subdued track than the rest of the album and seems almost out-of-place with its horns and muted drumming, but if nothing else it shows that the band had plenty of room to expand beyond the relatively narrow sights their eponymous album displays. “Honestly?” is another highlight, where Kinsella cleverly recognizes the futility of living in angst-ridden teenage years as the rest of the band orbits in swirling guitar chimes. The song's second half, an proggy but relaxed exercise in guitar hypnotism, is arguably even better than the first. Instrumental tracks like “You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon” and “One With The Wurlitzer” show a band that shifts almost seamlessly to instrumental music, but Kinsella's singing is hardly expendable.
“But The Regrets Are Killing Me” shows once again the band's skill at shifting pace mid-song with a beautiful guitar hook towards the end, and “I'll See You When We're Both Not So Emotional” floats effortlessly on its unique chord progression and a strong bridge. “Stay Home” is the album's longest track and revisits the rhythmic, droning parts of “Honestly” but with a more subdued and longing effect. “But that's life / it's so-so / so emotional / so stay home” could seem like whining coming from a different band, but Kinsella's songcraft and delivery makes it seem more like a calming, meditative chant than self-pity.
It's a shame that American Football was so short-lived, because few bands had such an interesting dynamic between emotional melodies and engaging musicianship. There are traces of it in +/- and Pinback at times, but while American Football never got a chance to more fully flesh out their songcraft, the high quality of the self-titled album and EP make them a band worth remembering. Although not a perfect album, it doesn't need to be; it's one of the rare records that crafts a self-contained world with its own temperament, but also allows the listener to find its relevance regardless of the situation. So sit outside on a warm summer night, pop on some headphones, close your eyes, and let American Football provide the soundtrack.