My introduction to American Football was in, of all places, Satan’s Hollow in Manchester. I was late to the party with the mid-to-late 90s emergence of the poppier side of emo, having cut my alternative teeth on skate punk and ska (stop sniggering, I’m sure most of you can relate to this). Moving to Manchester for University in 1998 I eventually discovered a healthy DIY scene the likes of which I’d never encountered before – and took every opportunity to go to any gig that the great community I’d found put on.
This led to me being in the Star & Garter on a Tuesday evening in May 2003 to see Joan of Arc supported by Owen: Mike Kinsella of American Football’s solo project. I was familiar with neither at the time, but the members of the collective promoting the gig had not often failed to bring great bands to Manchester, so I was looking forward to it. The gig itself was great and has it’s own stories for another time, but the important thing was that it was on a Tuesday night, and Tuesday night was free bar night at Satan’s Hollow, so it was pretty much guaranteed that I’d be ending up there.
It was also a time when Apathy & Exhaustion’s very own tonyofnurgle was one of the resident DJs, and as such meant that for at least a portion of the night, we’d be treated to music you wouldn’t normally expect to hear in an alternative club. Thus it was that a selection of the crowd from that night’s gig was in attendance when the starting strains of the opening track from American Football’s eponymous first album, “Never Meant”, drifted from the speakers. Mike Kinsella himself was looking on awkwardly as my friends rushed excitedly onto the dance floor. It was my first time hearing anything by them, and I was mesmerised. It had angular math rock riffs, tempered by a reserved playing style and sparse arrangement that belied the complexity of the songs; and Kinsella’s measured and almost spoken vocal delivery matched it all perfectly.
The reason for this somewhat lengthy recollection of my introduction to the band is that I have some very fond memories of that time, and for me American Football was one of the bands that seemed to capture the feeling of it all, even though they were long broken up. Over the years it would seem that many other people have had similar revelations, as the release has become one of Polyvinyl’s best-selling to date. Which brings us to the present day, and lo and behold a reunion. I guess it’s what all the cool ex emo kids are doing these days. (I’m not complaining, I’ve seen several bands live I never thought I’d get to!) And a reunion has led to new material, and the new album which I listened to with a touch of trepidation.
I didn’t manage to get to see them live on their recent UK tour, which I’ve been kicking myself for, but it meant I was completely clueless to how they now sound, almost 20 years on from their conception, prior to listening to the album. And it may be that I hold too much nostalgia for the first record and the time it reminds me of, but this second eponymous offering has fallen flat for me. All of the ingredients are there, twinkly guitars and forlorn trumpets, but something for me has been lost. Mike’s vocals seem a lot more up front and centre, the lyrics too knowingly earnest. It all sounds a little too polished and produced when I compare it the raw feeling I got from the debut release. It’s not even as if they’ve progressed and moved on from their original sound, it just feels like more of the same but not as good. I’ve been finding myself putting the first album on immediately after to remind myself why I loved it so much.
Some tracks have promise, My Instincts are the Enemy starts with a pleasing start/stop riff, and Desire Gets in the Way picks up the tempo with a catchy opening refrain, but they both fail to really go anywhere. The overall feeling I get left with is “All filler, no killer”.
If this were a release standing on it’s own, with no history looming over it, I don’t think I would be being anywhere near as critical, but the truth is it has a pedigree it’s just not living up to.
You can catch American Football at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London on the 2nd November.
You can stream the record via Consequence of sound here, so please go and form your own opinion.