In Brief: It’s probably unintentional, but in the course of creating an album full of epic, meandering progressive rock tunes with a few peppy pop tunes in between to break the tension, Owel seems to bring back the specters of several indie rock bands I used to love who have since vanished into the woodwork. They could use a band name that doesn’t result in their immediately being confused with a dorky synthpop outfit, but that would be a stupid thing for me to hold against them.
I know you’re probably all thinking this, so let’s just get it out of the way: Owel has nothing to do with Owl City. The intentional misspelling is there as a hint, I’m sure, but it still isn’t the most descriptive or unique band name out there. In fact, this New York/New Jersey-based indie rock outfit seems to have chosen it deliberately, at least if you believe lead singer’s Jay Sekong explanation that it has no intended meaning and that he didn’t want the name of the band to give away anything about the sound or mood of their music. I suppose it helps to listen to a new band with an open mind instead of being distracted by an ill-fitting band name. (It still amuses me that Band of Skulls is most definitely not a death metal band, and that the members of Barenaked Ladies are all fully-clothed men, for example.) But if they were going to pick something random out of a hat, they probably couldn’t have chosen something that would lead so easily to distaste by association. (And I don’t mean to bag on Owl City – I’ve freely admitted in the past to enjoying some of their music, goofy as it is. But there is absolutely zero overlap between their sound and Owel’s. I can’t be more clear on that point.)
Not knowing what to expect from Owel aside from a ringing endorsement from a fellow music lover who had gotten into the band last work and even gone so far as to score an interview with the band to help spread the word, my first impression when I loaded up their album in Spotify was that the track times were on the long-ish side. Not like ten minutes long, but frequently over five. And that’s space I can happily inhabit if a band can keep things moving and changing over the course of a song. The first four songs out of the gate on this album all push or exceed that limit, with the band borrowing a move from Elbow by putting their longest song right up front, as if to present the challenge to listeners right away: If you don’t have much patience, and you expect to get to the rawking right away, this probably isn’t for you. Unlike the smoother, more spacious sounds that Elbow tends to inhabit, this band can whip up a guitar-heavy maelstrom of sound when they want to – they just tend to take their time getting there. Some better comparisons might be the more exploratory side of Mae, and a few indie bands I used to love, that I’d be somewhat surprised if the folks in Owel had even heard of them: Copeland, The Myriad and Anathallo. Sekong’s voice takes me into that same sort of mystical space that a lot of The Myriad’s songs did, and the cool keyboard vibe and the more sensitive side of their lyrics definitely evoke the same slow-burn feel as a lot of Copeland’s material, while the occasional baroque tendencies that emerge due to the presence of violinist, keyboardist, and backing vocalist Jane Park occasionally bring to mind a less convoluted, more rock-oriented Anathallo. I’m sure those bands were in turn influenced by other indie rock luminaries that have probably also helped to shape Owel’s sound – you might listen to this and name ten other bands I’d never even heard of. (And Sigur Rós. You just can’t hear a long, brooding indie rock song these days and not detect a little Sigur Rós in there somewhere.) And while I can’t say their sound is the absolute most unique thing I’ve stumbled across in the landscape of independent music, I also can’t point to any specific moments where they’re specifically aping any one influence. For as little buzz as I’ve heard on these guys (seriously, even trying to track down a physical copy of their CD has proven fruitless), they definitely sound like they’re way past the garage stage and poised to be snatched up by some sorta-big label that’s still small enough to respect what they do and not tamper with it.
What Owel intends to say through their songs (assuming they’re meant to say anything specific at all) is just about as hard to pin down as the exact origins of their sound. Images of water and snow abound on this album, right down to the curious cover art which finds two characters stranded on a rooftop in an apparently flooded city. Death and rebirth are common themes as well. Unlike the decidedly spiritual bent of some of the bands I mentioned above, Owel seems to have no spiritual agenda whatsoever, with one song in particular (curiously, one of the album’s downright poppiest) standing out as a declaration of agnostic uncertainty. I’m OK with that – I enjoy getting into the headspace of artists who may see the world and the idea of God (or the lack thereof) differently than I do. I just figured I should clarify that a similarity in sound to some of the above bands doesn’t mean a similar mindset. Not knowing where the heck they’re coming from is actually a big part of what intrigues me about this group. And while their lyrics are often more impressionistic than declarative, their musings occasionally approach the profound in satisfying ways. This is “personal soundtrack” music, the kind which will attach itself to your moods and experiences and you won’t always be able to pinpoint why a certain song resonates the way it does. I might strongly relate to one track and then feel completely locked outside of the next one, pressing my nose up against the glass and trying to figure out what’s going on in there. Owel is exploratory without being irreverent or avant-garde or needlessly bizarre, and so for me, they strike just the right balance between the warm comfort of familiar sounds and the unexpected twists and turns that keep me coming back to see if I can decode it all. (I’m pretty sure I never will.)
Long tracks that take a while to get off the ground usually aren’t the type of thing I can get into easily, especially when I feel like they’re holding back the momentum right at the beginning of an album. That was never an issue for this song, which may wait until a few minutes in to bring in the guitar, drums, and a general sense of grandeur, but which manages to hook me right away by using a crystalline keyboard melody to lay the groundwork. Lyrically, it may be the simplest thing that Owel has to offer, with a mere six lines of lyrics, two of them being the chorus that repeats in an appropriately trance-like manner: “Sleepwalk to the grave/Slow dance in a haze.” This is a song that evokes a sense of wonder throughout its seven and a half minutes, building up to a stunning apex with the drums clattering and the strings swooping about and Jay’s breathy falsetto sounding perfectly content in the winter storm. And then suddenly, it drops down to nothing but eerie, rumbling bass notes, to slowly build back up again for the grand finale. Thanks to how the different players weave in and out and the repeating vocal lines are eventually woven together in a beautiful round, there’s not one second where this song threatens to get tedious. It’s pure beauty, and one heck of an opening statement for the rest of the band’s career to have to live up to.
The second track is based around more identifiably “rock” instrumentation, with a somewhat grity guitar riff leading the way over an even-keeled, mid-tempo groove. It’s the sort of thing that feels like late-album filler at first, to the point where I wondered if it was wise to place it as the second track, but in its own cautious way, it demonstrates once again that the band has a keen ear for how to start with basic, unassuming building blocks and build a song up to a terrific climax. The mood of it goes from “chilled out and walking down the street on an average day” to “screaming to the heavens for answers” as the guitars launch into the stratosphere during its bridge, and through it all, you sense a great weight bearing down on Jay, even as he sings the mantra, “So lighten up and let it go/So lighten up and leave it alone.” The group vocals that echo behind him for one solitary word per verse are almost a hook unto themselves, helping to make the song memorable even when its melody doesn’t stand out as much as the other songs. By the third time through, you’re expecting that echo and it’s sort of clever that it’s not there any more.
3. Burning House
Seeming to further wreck any sense of logical flow that this album had a hope of building up is the dead stop that begins this song, with Jay’s voice barely audible as he pleads, “I need this house to stay burning… for a while.” The tone of it is more chamber pop than indie rock at first, with the quietly brushed drums and meek piano melody and the hushed, carefully considered lyrics. Pretty weird, for a song that’s all about wanting to remain in a place of unsettling chaos, and of giving up hope for finding any resolution. It’s a beautiful little poem on an unexpected topic, and just when you think the band’s about to quietly finesse their way through five minutes of this, the tone ever-so-gradually shifts toward “big roaring symphonic rock finish”, and it certainly doesn’t sound from the beginning of the song like it would ever arrive at what it sounds like at the end, but the way they bridge the soft and loud together seems like a thoroughly natural progression, which is a welcome change from the usual jarring “PSYCH!” that a lot of modern rock bands like to drop on their listeners.
4. Death in the Snow
Up next is yet another epic, probably one of the more guitar-heavy songs on the album. This is the song that earned Owel a passing mention in Pitchfork Magazine last year (because I guess an actual review would be too much to ask), so um… get on it before the hipsters do or something? I tease, but I can understand why the heavy, dramatic sound of this song would attract an interesting assortment of listeners from different genres. It’s got the epic, melodic sweep of a good progressive rock tune, but it shoves its purposefully underproduced guitar riffs right up front, to the point where I think for a second that I’m hearing a demo EP from 10 to 15 years ago. The lyrics may well be a “Once more unto the breach!”-styled battle cry, as if Jay is trying to get a group of soldiers or explorers psyched up for what will most certainly be a one-way trip into a frosty, desolate wilderness. The strings get incredibly busy once this sucker really gets going, and while sometimes I think they’re laying on muddy layers of sound a bit too thick, it hits like a powerful tidal wave once it gets to the final chorus. The false ending and the band’s subsequent dive back into their sludgy and yet symphonic breakdown are a nice dramatic touch.
5. Nothing’s Meant
Owel’s logic for how to order the tracks on an album seems flipped from your usual commercial-leaning rock band – usually you start off with the single material, the stuff that gives the listener an immediate impression of the album being wall-to-wall hits, and then you save your more experimental stuff for deeper in the album. Instead, we’re at track five and now they trot out their first peppy little pop song. And I sort of love them for saying “screw the rules” like that. Fortunately, while this upbeat little number certainly has a swing in its step, it isn’t throwaway material by any means. Its opening keyboard riff is deceptively similar to “Snowglobe”, but in service of a much more straightforward song, one that finds Jay contently looking back at lost love and determining that while he can’t ascribe where he is and where she is nowadays to some sort of grand celestial destiny, he’s still confident that he’s where he needs to be. This song is what brought the term “agnostic” to mind earlier, as he’s pretty adamant that “You and I are not part of a plan”, but he immediately turns his doubt and cynicism around to state optimistically, “But we’re everything that’s perfect about now.” The rapid-fire drumming keeps this song moving along at an addictively brisk pace, while a cute little horn fanfare shows up here and there just to add to its overall feeling of confidence. I don’t see the world the way that this song does, but it puts a smile on my face nonetheless.
We began the album with a few songs about snow and fire, and now we’re in for three straight songs about water. Owel’s lyrics are very, shall we say, elemental. This one’s deceptive at first – you think from the casual acoustic strumming in triple time that it’s some sort of a coffeehouse serenade, and you’re almost immediately whisked away to the canals of Venice or some other far-flung place ideal for wooing a lover back to you. Then you realize it’s a bit of fantasy fulfillment as the melody takes a few melancholy turns and he’s essentially re-enacting a dream, one in which “I’m the most charming that I’ve ever been.” Then the second verse hits and – yes, they’re shifting sounds suddenly this time – boom, that big rock guitar and fuzzy bass smack you right upside the head, and suddenly the whole thing is larger than life, as if you’ve been swept into a terrifying, roaring whirlpool from which there is no escape. Jay’s cries of “Please pull me under” sound a lot more creepy in this context, even though the melody and phrasing of the chorus have not changed – only the urgency of the music has. It’s like this dream has consumed some poor man’s life to the point where he just lives to go back to sleep again, hoping to meet the object of his affection somewhere in the dark corners of his mind. I get the best kind of shivers at the end of the song when everything else drops out and he’s left all by his lonesome, crying out as his voice recedes into the blackness, “Here I will float away in faith/I’m floating to you.”
7. Once the Ocean
In stark contrast to the desperation of “Float”, this may be the calmest song ever written about drowning in a flood. It’s almost a ballad, yet it’s slick enough to play as a relaxed indie pop song, the guitars and keyboards locking into a chiming groove with music-box precision. It’s a love song that sounds a lot like a sweet lullaby if you’re not paying terribly close attention to the words, which are sweet and sentimental, but still, Jay’s basically telling someone that she’s the person he’d want by his side if his city were being inundated by a tsunami. It’s a remarkably even-keeled song compared to most of the album, not going for a big climax, and actually standing out quite a bit due to its determination to be simply pretty yet subtly intricate for all of its four and a half minutes. It won’t get as much attention as some of the showstoppers on this album, but it’s good to know that this band can shift gears and do “subdued” really well also.
8. The Unforgiving Tide
Here’s where I think the biggest mistake was made in the pacing of this album. I can live with “Scales” and “Burning House” throwing off my expectations early on. But this one, placed immediately after “Once the Ocean”, makes the mistake of also being about the ocean and also being slow-to-medium in the tempo department, with its constant chiming away on a simple 4/4 meter bringing to mind uncomfortable comparisons to a host of Coldplay clones that plagued us even past the point where Coldplay themselves decided to cut that crap out. I don’t mean to say that this song is thoroughly boring. it may be one of the most lyrically incisive songs on the album, as it warns impressionable young women to protect themselves from… well, the heartless jerk singing the song. Don’t believe me? Get a load of these lyrics: “Stay forever weary/For I’ve been quite the bastard, posing sweet/Don’t you dare be thoughtful/No don’t you dare be darling and delicate.” I can this one really striking a chord with some folks for its honesty, and once again, the vocal harmonies are as sweet as ever. But that may be the problem. It’s too mushy and laid-back in the music department to really startle us into wondering what he’s singing about. There needs to be a drastic change in direction somewhere within this song, and we’ve grown to expect it from Owel at this point, and they already gave us a breather in the previous track, so this one’s stubborn lack of surprises is a bit disappointing.
If you’re in the mood for a little more lyrical dissonance, but need something to perk you up after the sleepy sea voyage of those last few tracks, then this oughta do the trick. It’s a fine little march of a baroque pop song, starting off meekly enough with its gently ticking drums and its tinkling bells and whatnot, but growing steadily more bold as its drums build up to parade speed and its strings are happily slashing back and forth and you can almost see confetti raining down on the band as they celebrate the progress of a heart on the mend. Much like “Nothing’s Meant”, this one bids adeiu to a lover who either wasn’t the right person or just wasn’t in his life at the right time, and though her absence is felt in his heart and in his sheets, he remains steadfast that he needs this time to grow, to work on himself and become a better man, presumably before diving into the next relationship. I’ve been in that in-between, “down for repairs” phase before, and I sure wished I had a big, bold song like this to help me through it at the time.
10. Field Mouse
The suddenly downbeat, “lounge” sort of feel of this song is another surprising change of pace at first – now that I’ve gotten a feel for it, I’d characterize it more as “baroque pop”, but it’s got some jazz influence in there, too. It’s definitely the starkest thing on the record, and here’s where I get the Anathallo vibe the most, since it sounds an awful lot like a Floating World B-side. The lyrics are a strange, tragic, poetic vignette about the death of a small mouse, who was held too high in the air by an excited child who found it and was presumably going to bring it home as a pet, only for it to leap from his hands in fear and plunge to its demise. The moral of the story apparently didn’t stick, since Jay laments, “I never was quite careful enough with the things that I loved”, as if to imply that as an adult, he’s dropped and shattered hearts in much the same manner. This slow, dusky shuffle is faintly illuminated by bells, brushed cymbals, and Jane Park’s haunting background vocals, and just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it segues into a brief but lovely little string coda, almost as if we’ve stepped out of some dark watering hole into a sunlit garden where a wedding is taking place.
The last track on the album turns out to be my second favorite after “Snowglobe” – and assuming the material in between holds my attention, I think it’s always a good sign when an album starts and ends with its best songs. This eerie ode to the afterlife feels longer than it is, but in a good way – its tricky, pounding drum pattern seems to be heralding something larger than life, and it leads up to a powerful, string-drenched finale that fools me into thinking they’ve been building to it for six or seven minutes, when in truth it’s only been three or four. Only in the context of rebirth could a line like “I’ll see you when I’m naked again” come across as anything other than creepy – in Owel’s hands, these words are vulnerable and compelling, as if to say a man and woman who couldn’t reconcile their differences in this life will meet up again as innocent babes in the next, somehow recognizing each other’s true forms, but without all of the emotional baggage caused by their last encounter. It all seems to come together in the album’s final minutes – the group’s knack for exciting rhythms, compelling melodies that work their way up to emotional high points through just enough repetition, a keen mixture of rock and baroque/classical sensibilities, and the echo of wordless group vocals as the song – and album – fade out.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Burning House $1
Death in the Snow $1.50
Nothing’s Meant $1.75
Once the Ocean $1.25
The Unforgiving Tide $.50
Field Mouse $1.25
Jay Sakong: Lead vocals
Seamus O’Connor: Guitars
Jane Park: Violins, keyboards
Ryan Vargas: Drums
Pat McGee: Bass:
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: