Released: July 2nd, 2013
Mike Kinsella is one of the finest instrumental craftsmen of our time, and he has nearly twenty years of recordings to prove it. He got his start in the early 90’s as the drummer for the influential emo band Cap’n Jazz, nimbly guiding the band through their signature frantic tempos before fronting the mellower, math-rock influenced American Football, in which he sung with an endearingly untrained voice over shimmering, interlocking guitars. In 2001, he began to release music under the name Owen, recording all the instruments himself in his bedroom. Kinsella’s work as Owen is distinguished by his intricate, inventive acoustic guitar work, plaintive yet unaffected vocals, and introspective lyrics, and although his recordings have grown more polished over the years, they’ve lost none of their depth or charm.
L’Ami du Peuple, Kinsella’s seventh album as Owen, begins with Kinsella admitting to feeling uninspired on “I Got High,” a complaint that quickly proves false as the song’s instrumentation expands to augment the delicately strummed acoustic guitar with an infectiously buoyant, handclap-aided drum line. The instrumentation throughout L’Ami du Peuple, performed mostly by Kinsella himself, is pleasantly diverse, from catchy melodica riffs in “Coffin Companions” and “The Burial” to a charming ragtime piano accompaniment in “Where Do I Begin?” Kinsella’s guitar work, easily the album’s greatest strength, is particularly varied. Much of the album rests upon skillfully fingerpicked acoustic guitars in odd tunings that tastefully distinguish his playing from that of the average strummer. Meanwhile, his electric guitar playing clearly stands out and often boosts the songs to greater heights, as on “A Fever,” where his woozy, intermittent flourishes enhance the song’s theme of illness. In an unusual move for an acoustic singer-songwriter record, several songs feature prominent guitar solos, which prove to be clear highlights of the album, with their keen melodicism and fractured phrasing.
By contrast, Kinsella’s vocals, while always pleasant, rarely grab the listener’s attention. Few of the vocal melodies on L’Ami du Peuple are particularly memorable, which is a shame, considering the depth of Kinsella’s lyrics. Kinsella, a father of two, dwells on themes of family, as on “Bad Blood,” where he poignantly addresses the spurious notion of hereditary suffering (“blame your mother for every shadow you’re afraid of/the burning urge to flee – well, that’s on me”). His lyrics drip with ache, and while the subject and cause of his pain are often ambiguous, his words are rendered with uncommon skill and commendable honesty. Dark though some of the lyrics may be, L’Ami du Peuple ends on a lighter note with Kinsella singing on “Vivid Dreams” of waking from a deep sleep to realize that that he’s happy with his life and grateful to have found love, closing the album with a sense of hope and redemption.
Though the hurt that frequently surfaces in Kinsella’s lyrics may keep this album from being easy listening, the artistry and craftsmanship of L’Ami du Peuple make for a consistently gratifying and sometimes thrilling listen, as well as a fine introduction to Mike Kinsella’s richly rewarding body of work.
Review by John McAlmon