Illinois musician Mike Kinsella has worked under several guises in his career. From the tragically short-lived brilliance of his band American Football, who graced us with but one record in 1999, to work with a host of Chicago indie acts over the past ten years, his is a quietly prolific career. With Owen, his solo moniker, Kinsella has found not only a staunch fanbase, but also a sparsely populated musical niche which he has cultivated over the course of five albums.
Ghost Town, the newest of this quintet, continues to plough a similar furrow, yielding healthy if unspectacular results. Characterised by melodic acoustic guitar riffs and Kinsella’s plaintive vocals, Owen’s output can contain moments of brilliance, but can also be offset by mawkishness or overly contrived lyricism.
Take opener ‘Too Many Moons’ as a sample: its closing bars of moaning strings, a delicate drum pattern, simple piano and a wonderful acoustic riff are superb, mellow and soothing and ideal for a winter pick-me-up; yet it also inexplicably contains some lyrics in French and a few melodic lulls.
Kinsella’s voice, for all its distinctiveness, can lack for range at times. His conversational style lends itself brilliantly to certain tracks, but at other times lacks the required punch.
That said, his ear for a lilting guitar riff is undeniably deft. ‘No Language’ and ‘Everyone’s Asleep In The House But Me’ contain effortlessly-played melodies which glide and sway as softly and subtly as the ghosts of the album’s title. When Owen’s music leans on the nimble grace of Kinsella’s fingertips, it floats out of the speaker and seems to permeate the surrounding location. It would be tough to find anyone not wooed by the charm of its smooth edges.
Ghost Town also showcases a different production style to that found on other Owen recordings. Whereas I Do Perceive or the superb At Home With Owen carried with them a literally homespun charm – Kinsella turned his old bedroom in his mother’s house into a recording studio – his fifth LP is slightly more polished, albeit far from studio-ised. Again working with Brian Deck (who also helped record At Home…), the lush string arrangements sound natural rather than awkward, striking that difficult balance between emotional and saccharine. Seeing as how Ghost Town’s lyrical content focuses itself on fatherhood – the passing of Kinsella’s father as well as the birth of his own daughter – it would be easy to over-sentimentalise, but Owen’s fifth album mercifully never does so.
Yet, as has been the case with other Owen records, there’s a frustrating inconsistency to the material, which means that for every hummable, soft melody there’s a moment of jarring incompatibility. When it’s right, Ghost Town offers acoustic bliss with a feather-light touch; it’s when the album gets away from these simple roots that its quality begins to waver.
Certainly worth listening to, if not worth falling in love with.