Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.
Whether it’s a collection of slapdash B-sides or a mix of half-ass fillers, covers and live cuts, the EP is one of the hardest forms of music to justify spending money on. Yet any band that has been around for more than four years seems to have an infinite number of these collections. Is there really that strong of a market for basement acoustic cuts of fan-favorites? Do full-time musicians really have that difficult of a time coming up with 50 minutes of new music every year? Are there really people out there who need a recording every time Conor Oberst talks into a microphone?
For these questions and more, we turn to Mike Kinsella’s acclaimed solo project Owen. Kinsella, who has made a name for himself with many fine Chicago-based indie bands, may have the set the standard for all EPs with his appropriately-titled 2004 release. The six-track basement recording clocks in at just under 26 minutes and is truly definitive not for reinventing the wheel, but instead for perfecting the formula and pace that all EPs seem to strive for.
First up is the attention-grabbing opener, “Skin and Bones” the optimal introductory song to anyone not familiar with Kinsella’s style; the sleepy vocal delivery, the incredibly complex guitar arrangements, and the shimmering background effects all layer together so fluidly that it easily breaks free of the clichés associated with singer/songwriter homemade recordings. Even so, Kinsella’s lyrics have always set him apart from contemporaries. He is a comfortable observer, often detached from the action around him and able to evaluate everything (including himself) on face-value. “Skin and Bones” is memorable for the characters “The tall good-looking boy” and “the prettiest girl at the party,” who both, in their own separate verses, can effortlessly satisfy their ephemeral urges without considering what this means for the people around them. Kinsella reserves his judgment of these people, never seeming the least bit condemning or jealous. Instead, he just mentions that these people exist and this is how they behave, leaving it up to the listeners to decide how to feel about the well-known characters.
The EP’s second track, “In the Morning, Before Work” moves onto another subject Kinsella writes about often: familiarity. “I eat with these crooked teeth/ Tomato soup and grilled cheese/ But you already know that.” It’s comical how deadpan he is about his routine, making Kinsella’s lyrics appeal to the Everyman numbed by the day-to-day.
“Breaking Away” (yes, awful title) is the last really memorable track before taking a sharp decline (as per the universal rules of the EP format), and may be the first song since “Thunder Road” to really capture the wonder of being young. The opening lines, “Just between you and me/ I don’t know what I’m doing here” sound like an honest confession of someone lost in a new place. The song explores the youthful hopes of intimate misadventures and the impossibility of figuring out how to save money (“My brother the bartender/ I tip him well and I drink for free.“) Even the awkward swearing in the song comes off as someone trying to act older than they really are.
And from there The EP just drags. Considering the minimalistic production and the dead-end subject matter, it’s remarkable the album remained engaging as long as it did. The track “That Mouth” shows no inspiration lyrically or musically, only exacerbated by a tempo that could cure narcolepsy. The following song “Gazebo” showcases Kinsella’s unmatched abilities for guitar arrangement, but is so dull lyrically that the mind goes to screensaver around the three-minute mark.
And with that, Owen perfects what every other EP seems to resemble: a few good songs unfortunately exiled to share a limited space with tracks that go nowhere. Unlike most EPs however, Kinsella’s was not released to compensate for inactivity, as 2004 also saw the release of Owen’s excellent full-length I Do Perceive as well as a split with The Rutabega. So while the perfect EP remains elusive (and the reasons justifying EPs even more so) Owen’s The EP is a rare example of one that’s at least worthwhile.