It’s neither entirely fair nor feasibly avoidable to compare American Football’s second LP to their seminal first. The two share an eponym, inviting the designation LP2 for the new release. Their covers are, more or less, the same: a wide photograph of a house with a lit-up window, the band title with the same layout.
The track titles don’t do much to dispel the impulse for comparison either. The album opens with “Where Are We Now?” and there’s another track called “I’ve Been So Lost For So Long.” Titles that might not seem to make such references have lyrics to do it for them. More or less every song seems to be about past and present, about change. “Born to Lose” opens with a criss-crossing of memory and prediction: “born to lose: prophetic tattoo.” “Home is Where the Haunt Is” literally includes the words “past still present tense.” And the fact is, when a band breaks up in 1999 after one of the more influential and straight-up enjoyable albums of the decade, only to reunite 16 years later, tour, and come out with an album, we’re not just gonna listen to it without constantly asking ourselves if it lives up to what we know.
So what was so good about American Football back then? Singer-songwriter Mike Kinsella came from Cap’n Jazz, his rougher, more distorted, less melodic, more “is this ‘80s hardcore or?” band led by him and his brother Tim. He joined his other brother Nate, Steve Lamos from his other band The One Up Downstairs (whose EP makes more sense as a predecessor to American Football than Cap’n Jazz does), and old friend Steve Holmes, and wrote an EP in 1998 – you’ll never guess what it was called. It’s a decent 3 tracks, but Kinsella’s vocals seem to have taken a brief nosedive into a word emo bands to this day dread: whiny. (I have this on good authority: roughly 95% of the musicians at my high school had an emo band. Some of them found moderate success, shouts out Tawny Peaks shouts out Forth Wanderers. They were all really cool. I’m not really sure why they didn’t want to be friends with me.)
American Football took the driving drums of Cap’n Jazz, added the constantly hammering-on, pulling-off, sliding up and down guitar work of Tim Kinsella’s next band, Joan of Arc, and added an earnestness to Kinsella’s vocals nonpareil in the genre. Loud, melodic, imploring vocals at a comfortable distance from the microphone brought American Football a sound that bands have attempted, and consistently failed, to replicate ever since. Track one, “Never Meant,” had a pair of guitar lines that played off each other with ease. There’s something that seems somehow inevitable about those lines, sliding up and up the neck until they’re replaced by a brief drum fill and brought back down. It’s a sound that doesn’t come back in exactly the same form, replaced as it is by a slower, more steady version of itself in tracks like “You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon.” But it defines the album.
Which is why LP2’s opening is surprising. High, reverberating glittering guitar sounds serve as more of a steady backing to Kinsella’s new voice, honed on his solo work as Owen. It’s softer, smoother, miraculously sadder, with a more easily leaping melody than it is on LP1. It’s not exactly what I want from American Football, but there’e no denying that it’s technically better. When Lamos’s drums return in “Where Are We Now?” things settle into their form, and American Football is, at least for the moment, back. Those drums have a groove which, upon reflection, may do more defining work for LP1 than the paired guitar lines, lines which, twinkling as ever, return in “My Instincts Are The Enemy.” That happens to be the best track on the album, featuring Kinsella’s best vocal work in a rushed “trouble” and a little vibrato added to the word “exposed.” The second part of the song has a steady chord picked out in eighth-notes, grounded by a drum part in three. It is the same exact polyrhythm as is found in “Honestly” on LP1, but it feels fresh anyway.
“Home is Where the Haunt Is” comes in with a nice finger-picked acoustic part, fairly boring drums with a few nice flourishes, and disappointing vocals. The end features nice harmonics on the second guitar part and what sounds like a reverb-laden slide guitar. “Born to Lose” is the most “Never Meant”-style song, until the vocals come in with those conceptually interesting but otherwise awful lyrics transcribed above. It has the most prominent bass-work on the album and a quintessentially Kinsella bridge. The verse on “I’ve Been Lost for So Long” just sounds like an Owen song to me, though the tempo and time signature seamlessly change themselves going into and out of the stand-out chorus, which is no easy task.
“Give Me the Gun” is the most tonally interesting track. There’s a steady bass-line holding it down from the start; a quickly cut off high-hat; a guitar line comprising only harmonics and open strings; and a xylophone. The chorus switches to a steady ride in place of the high-hat, giving it a more open, full quality, and there’s what must be a binaurally recorded percussion that may be a wood-block but sounds like a hammer in the distance. (When I first heard that I took off my headphones in annoyance. I don’t know how my neighbor finds so many things to hammer.) Between the first chorus and the next verse, the drums get to take center stage, but Lamos holds back, keeping his steady rhythm, and allowing for a much more satisfying reentry of the guitar parts, where a monophonic guitar line enters for the closest thing to a solo on the album. After the second verse, everything turns up energy-wise for a repetition that unfortunately doesn’t really go anywhere. Each instrument eventually stops in turn, until the xylophone ends the track alone. It feels like a lazy ending to an otherwise good song.
“I Need a Drink (or Two or Three)” is a bad title to a good-enough song. Slowly strummed guitar chords accompanied by an echo-y trumpet part reminds me of “The Summer Ends” and “The One With A Wurlitzer” from LP1. Then that title is the first line of the song. The whole thing. It’s not even a funny line. “Desire Gets in the Way” is similarly lackluster, although even the most mediocre of American Football songs are worth the time it takes to listen to them. The opening guitar part, before the classic pairings come in, has an almost annoying couple of notes that would do better on a Weezer album (hey, they can’t stop doing self-titled albums either). It’d be a good song if the vocals didn’t go for an LP1-style shout, which it turns out doesn’t work for the nearing-40 Mike Kinsella. The second part has a sort of chug-chug-chug low-string guitar part, although that’s followed by a full twisting and turning multi-part ending that somehow explains those first two notes in the song, putting them in a more palatable, if still not entirely enjoyable, context. “Everyone is Dressed Up” is a good enough ending for the album, but Lamos’s drums do little more than keep time, and Kinsella’s melody doesn’t have much charm.
It’s a fine album, taking it track by track. It’s not 1999’s American Football, but how could it be? 22-year-olds excited about the potential for their music are going to put out a more energetic and innovative album than 40-year-olds who have seen their genre reach its nadir in the 2000s. And Mike Kinsella’s best songwriting may be behind him – by Owen’s L’Ami du Peuple in 2013, he seemed to have exhausted himself and resorted to quick repetitive fingerstyle guitar that didn’t leave much room for movement. It’s my opinion that he peaked in 2006 with At Home With Owen, for what it’s worth. That’s really not to say this is a bad album. Lamos is still an insane drummer (with a nice tone on the horn, too.) The mutually beneficial guitars are reminiscent enough of their former selves. Kinsella has a great voice, even if it barely resembles the one he used to have. It’s just that none of these songs are perfect the way every one on LP1 was. They all, in my eyes, have some flaw to them that amounts to an album that’s good, but that might not be as good if I didn’t know what to look for from its contributors. Then again, if nothing else, this got me listening to their first album again. That may be enough.
Review by Henry Gifford.