American Football, despite only releasing one full length and an EP, has secured a permanent place in the story of my life. They were one of the first bands my wife (then–girlfriend) introduced me to in the early 2000s, along with Jets to Brazil, Elliott Smith, Death Cab for Cutie and Pedro the Lion. There was a reason fellow Augustana graduate and Punknews alum Scott Heisel and I referred to her as "emo chick" when we saw her from afar. She had it all –– short black hair, thrift store jacket with band buttons and the skinny studded belt. Ahh youth. I was still listening to something like 100% Lagwagon and Bad Astronaut, so this music was a pretty big change.
American Football, known mostly for being Mike Kinsellas' project after Cap'n Jazz and before Owen, is emo in the classic midwestern sense, but nevertheless I will try not to get too emotional over this record due to the personal connection. But it is a damn fine representation of that scene.
I will say that the liner notes, written by "lead rhythm" guitarist Steve Holmes (as they joked, with Mike Kinsella the "rhythm lead"), give a cool insight into how the songs came together. As a fellow music nerd, I appreciate how he breaks down the opener, and as he calls it, the centerpiece of the album, "Never Meant": "We were very influenced by minimalism at the time and every part in its own way was a repetitive pattern that made up a piece of the whole." He also goes on the describe the way his and Kinsella's patterns are a different number of measures so that they start together and then overlap differently many times until finally syncing up after a bunch of repetitions. He talks about the guitar tunings they used. He talks about time signatures. I love it all. It has shed a whole new light on these familiar songs, allowing me to enjoy them on another level. He also points out little things I never noticed – at 43 seconds into the song, you can hear Kinsella shouting the vocals in the background, getting his voice ready for the proper entrance.
"I'll See You When We're Both Not So Emotional" is my favorite track on the record, but I'm biased. This was on the first mix Cara ever made for me, and on the tracklist she shortened "Emotional" to "Emo," naturally. It's a great song, one of the few featuring bass and it also has more singing than any other song on the record. "Honestly–" is another favorite with its insistent, quicker tempo and memorable Kinsella vocals. I also love the closer, "The One with the Wurlitzer", which appropriately has organ in it, with a tone that fits great alongside the clean guitar, with smooth trumpet over top by drummer Steve Lamos, which became another defining element of the band.
Deluxe editions are intended for the superfans and vinyl nerds and this will satiate both. I feel that the older the source material, the more interesting a deluxe edition will be––modern album deluxe editions always seem like a cash–grab with a bunch of hastily recorded extras or live tracks that were created strictly for that purpose, while old releases' b–sides and demos existed naturally, before they ever knew they would end up being heard by the public.
1999's American Football album sat at the edge of last century, right before home recording computer software became readily accessible and affordable to the amatuer. So we find boombox practice recordings here (check it out), showcasing the trio's ability to play together and bounce ideas off each other. During "Untitled #2" you can even hear the guys yelling quick prompts to each other mid–song. This song in particular is neat because it shows some more dissonance than we're used to hearing from them. "Untitled #3" is just the two Steves, and it give Lamos a chance to show off his jazz–trained drumming chops on the later half.
The sonic quality is, well, that of a boombox, but it's good enough to be worth listening to multiple times to hear what this band may have released had they done more than one album. As the boombox version of "Staying Home" collapses at the end, you get about 20 seconds of the guys conversing with each other about what to do at that point in the song. It's a brief but interesting look deeper into the band's chemistry. The boombox recording are mostly instrumental; in the liner notes Holmes talks about how they didn't have a PA in their practice space, forcing Kinsella to yell over the instruments or sit out vocally. Clearly this was a practical influence on the band taking shape. We also get 4–track pre–album demos that sound pretty decent, "Emotional", "Never Meant" and "But the Regrets are Killing Me."
The band didn't play many shows in their three year lifespan, but we get a few solid–sounding tracks recorded straight from the soundboard at The Blind Pig in Champaign, IL. Captured in 1997, this was early in the life of the band (their second show, in fact) and shows a band growing into greatness. After a quick intro we hear "Five Silent Miles," one of the first songs they ever wrote, and you can see the promise as well as the raw edges. Later we get "The 7's", named for the 7/4 riff the band eventually lands on near the end. I wish this one had been polished to make it on the proper album two years later.
One quick mention of the look of the package. Polyvinyl was awesome enough to send me the real–deal gatefold double LP for the review, and it is gorgeous. They went all out, from the pictures from shows at the legendary Fireside Bowl in Chicago, shots in the studio, the extensive liner notes, not to mention the beautiful pink speckled vinyl. You can also buy the individual mp3s from their site if you just want those unreleased lost tracks.
"Obviously, we knew the time was ripe for three middle aged dudes to play some old songs about teenage feelings, and stand around tuning guitars for a long time." Holmes is right. Time to show these up and coming emo bands how it's done.