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Owen: The King of Whys (Polyvinyl)

Aug. 16, 2016
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Mike Kinsella has taken part in so many indie-music projects—three examples: joining up, when he was just 12, with his brother Tim in Cap’n Jazz; drumming behind younger guns in Their/They’re/There; and reforming American Football—that a listener might perceive his discography the way a fast driver perceives the dashes down the middle of a road.

From that listener’s perspective, Owen is both a wayside where Kinsella can rest in a singer-songwriter mode and a roadside stand from which he can directly, or more directly than usual, purvey homier thoughts and ideas.

A roadside stand doesn’t have to stay in one place, either, so it’s almost odd that The King of Whys, the ninth Owen long-player, is the first Kinsella has recorded outside his Chicago base. Tempted up to Eau Claire by S. Carey—perhaps best known as a key Bon Iver conspirator—he transplants Owen’s sound to soil where it can flourish naturally.

With accompaniment from Carey, violist Michael Noyce and other Wisconsin musicians, Kinsella grows 10 songs outward, from the evident seeds of solo-acoustic composition, into well-tended, lush fruits that might be more immediately, even conventionally, appealing than the deliberately plainer offerings of many previous Owen albums. 

Yet Kinsella’s voice stays plainer, whether he’s slowly receding into the horn-enhanced sadness of “A Burning Soul,” placing words delicately above the chamber-folk strings and pedal steel of “The Desperate” or rendering his darker version of John Hartford’s vagabond wistfulness on “Lost.”

That kernel of plainness, surrounded by the tasteful and occasionally ornate and strident beauty of the instrumentation, stays close to Owen’s roots. If the title of The King of Whys suggests that Kinsella is always asking that one-word question, then the music suggests that, at this creative wayside, he can accept the answer of “because.”

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