Review Summary: In a world where the days of summer are fading away and autumn is just around the corner, American Football deliver an original infusion of math and indie rock with traditional emo to create something for the ages.
Three-piece bands tend to be hit and miss; sometimes, the lack of members limits the ability to experiment beyond basic chorded patterns and 4/4 time signatures. It can also affect live performances, as additional harmonies on the album are challenging to recreate without hiring a session musician for shows only. Certain bands, however, manage to test the limits of what three-piece bands can accomplish by thinking outside the box to create something truly phenomenal (such as The Fall of Troy
with Doppelganger.) Another such band is American Football, a short-lived project from indie stalwart Mike Kinsella. Along with Steve Lamos (drummer) and Steve Holmes (guitarist), Kinsella sought out to create an original blend of emotional indie rock with math rock influences. Only one full-length album was conceived before the band's premature breakup, but it remains a genuinely brilliant record that has touched almost all of its listeners. American Football managed to capture the feeling of drifting through time as the seasons change over and conveyed it through nine marvelous pieces of music.
"American Football" begins with "Never Meant", regarded by many (and myself) to be the band's signature song. The dazzling opening riff is a perfect introduction to the band's style of irregular time signatures and "twinkling" guitar sounds. Kinsella's vocals are confessional and heartfelt, and they sit low in the mix as to put more of an emphasis on the music itself. The percussion is complex and varied enough to keep the listener intrigued throughout the song's progression, with intricate hi-hat and tambourine pieces highlighting the performance. After the fadeout, "The Summer Ends" lumbers slowly into the wake. It's the first song to use trumpets, which is a unique and captivating dimension that American Football incorporates into multiple songs on the album. Lyrics like "Well, maybe I've been wrong. Maybe my intentions are irrelevant. But honestly, it's just not for me," transmit the character's regrettable feelings, while warm and melodic atmospheres surround the vocal lines. "Honestly"" is one of the best and longest tracks on the album, and it does a fantastic job of changing the pace from tired and dragging to upbeat and technical. Eventually, the song turns in a different direction almost without warning, and the vocals give way to a full-on four minute jam session by the musicians. The mood is consuming, with dramatic guitar leads and steady drum fills leading into another fadeout.
"For Sure" opens with a bit of a playful riff, and gorgeous horns accent the music wonderfully. For one of the shorter songs on the album, it's quite memorable and manages to project the feeling of being carefree. The vocals are drawn out and minimal, but add an extra bit of emotion to the song's already powerful message. Next, "You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon" displays the math rock influence with an attention-grabbing tapping riff, progressing into a mixture of melodious guitar lines and symbol-heavy drumming. The song contains no vocals, but another bit of experimentation is thrown in with the tasteful use of maracas to add some original flavor. "But The Regrets Are Killing Me" is perhaps the saddest song on the album, with lyrics such as "It's a long goodbye with mixed emotions. Just fragments of another life," and "Fools leave too soon. Built to fill roles and fall," stealing the spotlight. The "twinkling" aspect is at its best here, and waves of harmonious riffs and leads dominate the medium. "I'll See You When We're Both Not So Emotional" goes at a steady pace, with the ongoing theme of a crumbling relationship once again thrust into the limelight. Many of the guitar lines are elaborately designed and woven together like an old quilt, passed down through generations.
"Stay Home" is the longest track on the album, clocking in at just over eight minutes. The slow buildup of tension is tremendous, and the listener is almost able to picture the song's climax at the halfway point before slowly starting to wind back down. While the vocals don't appear until the climax, the lyrics are heartfelt and powerful ("Don't leave home again if empathy takes energy, because everyone feels just like you."), and it makes for a great summary of the album's overall tone and message. Finally "The One With The Wurlitzer" feels almost like the aftermath of the album, as it fades back in with a similar riff to the concluding piece of its preceding song. It's short and without vocals, but the sorrowful trumpet solo fills the void perfectly and brings the ever-beautiful 40 minute record to a bittersweet close.
This outreaching and emotionally-charged look at indie math rock (which is sometimes dubbed "post-emo") is heartfelt, dulcet, catchy and mournful all in one. Not many albums can deliver a contrasting whirlwind of emotions effortlessly, but American Football managed to successfully create something pioneering and prototypal before their unfortunate demise. Like too many other short-lived bands, they rode off into the sunset without first displaying their full potential as a group. And while their devoted cult of fans still hold out hope for a reunion, there hasn't been any substantial rumours to suggest that the three will ever make music together again. Still, this remains to this day a very influential group of songs that test the limits of the emotional spectrum and stay personally close to those who have grown to love them.