Monday, July 14, 2014

American Football - American Football

American Football – American Football
Polyvinyl, 1999 (2014 Reissue, Marbled Red Vinyl)
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2014
Price: $7.50
Man, talk about records I absolutely hated the first time I heard them. For a number of reasons, it was never the right time for American Football. The album popped up on my radar in maybe 2005 or 2006 and I thought it was a huge snore! I think it was the little punk rocker living inside of me, even though by that point I had mostly become a convert to the church of indie rock. There wasn’t enough energy! NOTHING WAS HAPPENING! Whatever. You know what other album I hated the first, second, and third time I tried listening to it? Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And that’s one of my favorite records of all time. So, if I’ve learned anything, it’s not to trust my taste. Some things should be dismissed outright, but something universally beloved by people who would know usually deserves a second, third, and fourth chance before being written off completely. Because that wouldn’t be fair to anyone.

It took five listens before American Football clicked. I don’t know what happened. One day I dug up the MP3s from an old hard drive and it sounded so, so, so fucking good. In that moment I was obsessed. You know what other great album I hated the first time I heard it? Slint’s Spiderland. And that’s one of my favorite records of all time! But I think that record really broadened my palate in an earth-shattering way. It made me slow down. Caused me to look at the insane genius in things that were brooding, slow-moving, and pensive. When I fell in love with Spiderland, I went on a bender of post rock, math rock, and every other kind of rock associated with that album. And I think that’s why American football makes sense.

Still, though, I can’t understand how you could like the first Death Cab for Cutie record and not think American Football’s eponymous debut was better. There’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship here. They operate as an emo band with a math rock band’s heart. One of my favorite tracks, “For Sure,” is one of the quietest songs on an album of quiet songs. A beautiful, cyclical riff that plays with a single forlorn horn and by the time the vocals come in, I feel hypnotized. As complex as these songs are, I almost expect them to be louder. They arrangements are bursting with energy, and yet this is an album perfectly suited for a midnight drive on an empty highway.

Like a highway, there are long stretches where nothing happens and you just stare out the window and look at the beautiful scenery. I’m not saying the instrumental that closes the A-Side—“You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon”—is nothing, but it feels like a pleasant breather. A moment for reflection before the second half of the album ramps the emotions back up. As prolific as Mike Kinsella is, American Football is his only release that is absolutely undeniable. His singer-songwriter act Owen is mighty good, and he’s not afraid to push boundaries with Joan of Arc, it’s just that this album is the best blend of inventive indie rock, great songwriting (“Not to be overly dramatic/ I just think it’s best, because you can’t miss what you forget/ So let’s just pretend everything and anything between you and me was never meant”), and complete tonal dominance. It’s baffling that this is the work of a trio. It feels like this band should have at least six members.

This new reissue from Polyvinyl is deluxe as hell. In addition to being pressed on lovely marbled red vinyl, the packaging includes a ton of mood-matching photography and a large booklet that explains all of the tunings, time signatures, and other technical stuff that makes these songs so compelling. The second disc is packed with live tracks and vocal-less demos, some of which were never released in any shape or form (“But the Regrets are Killing Me,” “The 7’s,” and a slew of untitled tracks). Guitarist Steve Holmes’ illuminating liner notes (From the notes for “For Sure”: “Mike had a bad cold the week we recorded the album and this was the first track we attempted vocals on. Mike’s whispery take on this track was probably in part a nod to Elliott Smith, but mostly based on the fact that he couldn’t sing in his normal voice with the sore throat and congestion) coupled with the meandering demos (I should also just tack on a note that Steve Lamos’ jazzy drumming and trumpet (drumpet?) makes up the backbone of this record and his inventiveness really gets to shine on the demos and live takes) are a fascinating glimpse into the world of this short-lived band. 

"Never Meant"

"For Sure"

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