My aux cord kicked the bucket last night. The cable’s remaining wire threads called it quits after an (admittedly) abusive three years of use. I planned on listening to the new American Football album—their first new music in 17 years—but resorted to brushing the dust off of my car’s CD player. Four of the device’s six slots were occupied; Enya’s The Celts, Abbey Road, a funk compilation, and, ironically enough, a burnt CD of Cap’n Jazz’s Analphabetapolothology.
Composed of bassist Sam Zurick, wiry guitarist Victor Villarreal, Promise Ring leader Davey von Bohlen and brothers Mike and Tim Kinsella, Cap’n Jazz once had a terribly undocumented story; an unfortunate side effect of the pre-blogosphere underground music world. In an excellent feature interview with Alternative Press amid the wake of Cap’n Jazz’s 2010 reunion, the band’s humble beginnings are recounted through a casual run-in between Tim and Victor. After impressing Kinsella at a band practice for the Cap’n Jazz prototype known as Toe Jam, the classically trained Villarreal would become a massive contributor to the band’s distinct sound. The guitarist’s twinkly, nuance-based licks would fill Cap’n Jazz’s spaz-punk eccentricities with an influential flair for generations of bands to come. But the group would not be together to see the effects of their redefining sound. It was Victor’s untimely hospitalization for a drug overdose that would solidify the band’s choice to ultimately break up while on tour in Little Rock, Arizona.
A few years would pass, and Cap’n Jazz drummer Mike Kinsella would begin playing guitar for a band called American Football. The group’s warm arpeggios and snug, dual six string arrangements no doubt borrowed influence from Kinsella’s performance experience with Villarreal. Knotty chord variations set to tricky time signatures would provide the basis for the band’s sound, and the band would prove just as influential as Cap’n Jazz. With all of this occurring in what seems to be an implausible causal sequence, it makes me wonder: What if the Kinsellas never started Toe Jam? What if Victor had taken piano lessons instead? What if Cap’n Jazz decided to not break up, keeping Mike tied to a band while at school? What if American Football never existed?
In the period between September 28, 1999 and October 21, 2016, American Football’s influence has proven unexpectedly vast. The staggering amount of projects that have translated and transposed the band’s stylistic renderings by means of adaptation, tribute and tailoring has become insurmountable. What had started from one small spark has cultivated a rich and prosperous genre-encompassing following. The short-lived excursions of Snowing, Crash of Rhinos, Algernon Cadwallader, Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate), The Brave Little Abacus, and CSTVT mirror AF’s fleeting lifespan. Blatantly Kinsella-influenced projects such as Plainclothes, TTNG, Into It. Over It., Foxing, Dads and Tiny Moving Parts echo the frontman over the course of nearly two decades. Genre fusing acts such as Grown Ups, Modern Baseball, Life Without Buildings, You Blew It!, The World Is A Beautiful Place, Dikembe and Pedro the Lion have ubiquitously pushed the band’s influence to its stylistic stitching. Kinsella himself would help launch acts including Joan of Arc, Owen, Owls, and Their/They’re/There following the fabled foursome’s quiet passing. Hell, there’s even a band called Chinese Football and a Death Grips/American Football mashup floating around on BandCamp.
The recording process of the band’s debut was drastically different than their long awaited follow-up LP. Constructed through a procedure that feels nothing less than organic, American Football’s first album was composed over the course of four years, performed with instruments both borrowed and conveniently available. Vocally, Kinsella has since ripened over his stylistically fluctuating career. The frontman’s keenly developed sense of songwriting shows an exercised comfortability in his lyricism. Most notably borrowing vocal proclivities from his Owen project, American Football focuses more on the songwriter’s lyrical pensiveness, relying less on the instinctive vocal motions hatched at the time of the band’s first release. But with this formulaic change in composition comes a new, perspective-driven artistic output. With the passing of 17 years there is a specific disconnect to the conceptual “whys” of American Football. For LP2, a specific notion of angst is sacrificed through time. The opening lines of “Honestly” seem to ring truer now more than ever. Hardcore American Football fans will long for more instrumentation and less of LP2’s polished vocals and distinguishable harmonics. Singles “Give Me the Gun” and “I’ve Been Lost For So Long” most noticeably lean upon Kinsella’s frontman jurisdiction, centralizing around the now production-buffed croons, and unfortunately lack the unfeigned charm of the band’s previous material.
But for each of American Football’s latest falters there is a successful equivalent. Tracks such as “My Instincts Are the Enemy” and “Born To Lose” manage to retain the allure of American Football’s first record, threading Kinsella’s fresh lyrical approach with the captivating instrumental movements the band has been known for. The final two minutes of “My Instincts are the Enemy” allow the track to blossom through keen time signature shifts and instrumental particularities as sharp as they once were, while the bassline of “Born To Lose” broods in choral anticipation, boasting the instrumental passion of “Untitled #1” and “Stay Home.” Closer “Everyone is Dressed Up” almost serves as a “The One With the Wurlitzer” part two, topped off with an equally stirring trumpet driven conclusion.
While American Football may have not composed the idealized record fans have been longing for, it’s a warmly welcome return from a band on an overextended hiatus. They’ve had their fair share of stylistic successors, yet not one group has managed to execute the qualitative tone the band still seems capable of capturing. Within the music’s context are insightful musings on what is and what once was, yet we’ve certainly “been here before.” If anything, American Football’s second installment to their discography is a release that simply makes sense within its frame of reference; a transitory interval of time, resurrected within a similar impulse, yet under a contrasting perspective.