In Brief: Owel’s third album proves that their delicious blend of indie rock with classical/chamber pop sensibilities is both reliable and malleable. While many of the songs take a while to sink in, as they have on previous albums, I’m tempted to think that they’re stronger for it, as a lot of these songs have euphoric crescendos that make the payoff worth the wait. But it’s also good that they’ve learned how to not overdo that approach to the point where it gets too predictable, and thus a few of their best songs that might be considered “poppy” can be found here as well.
Three albums into Owel‘s discography, I remain convinced that they’re a criminally underrated band. Actually, “underrated” isn’t quite the right word, as those who have heard the band and critiqued their music largely seem to like it and wish more people could hear it. Perhaps “underexposed” is the better term. And I get the reasons why this is so. They’re nominally an indie rock band, but the “rock” aspect of their sound seems to play out in less traditional ways with each album they make, gravitating more towards a “chamber pop” sound based around piano and strings, and sometimes hitting you with a really cool percussion part when you least expect it. Their 2013 debut struck an interesting balance between more compact and conventional indie pop songs and the longer, occasionally somewhat Sigur Rós-y, emotional epics, like their signature song, “Snowglobe”. Their follow-up, Dear Me, expanded on this sound with a touch of electronica here and there – it was a slow-burner and a difficult record for me to describe, but I knew pretty much right away that it would be one of my favorites of 2016. And the band’s third album, Paris, seems headed for a similar accolade at the end of 2019 – it’s the kind of thing where I knew on first listen that there was so much good stuff for me to dig into that I couldn’t take it all in at once, yet I was certain that most of the record was downright delectable. There’s a poetic richness, a certain “I know it when I hear it” quality to the way Owel makes music, that makes the band increasingly difficult for me to express in words what makes them unique, and what has them poised to become one of my favorite bands if they continue on this trajectory. (They’re certainly one of the bands that has rocketed to near the top of my “Have to see them live before I die” list, which is a feat for an indie band that doesn’t seem to have toured a ton outside of their native East Coast.)
Normally I’d have no reason to worry that a new album from Owel would be in any way of inferior quality compared to their previous one. But the departure of their longtime violinist Jane Park in 2017 had me a bit concerned – this is, after all, a band whose sound is largely dependent on classical elements, sometimes quite intricately arranged. Even in the songs that didn’t feature the violin, her contribution on keyboards and occasional backing vocals was always something that stood out to me. I figured the band could soldier on without her, but it might result in a paring down of their sound. I was pleased to discover that they had added Patti Kilroy to fill her shoes, on pretty much the same instruments, and from a few of the later singles released, it was quite easy to tell that string arrangements still mattered a great deal to this band. If anything, some of the string parts in these songs might be even more elaborate and breathtaking than they were in the past, which is really saying something. At the same time, I don’t want to oversell the importance of a departed member or that member’s replacement, when lead singer and primary songwriter Jay Sakong remains the primary creative force behind this band, with his vulernable vocals that can range from a sensitive near whisper to an anguished falsetto that vibrates the rafters, and his contribution on several instruments. The band’s got a pretty sweet rhythm section, too. But securing the role of the violinist was the most crucial element out of the things that I might have reasonably expected them to either change or drop between albums. So all is well in Owel-land, knowing that they’ve still got a quality musician filling that slot.
Having given it time to fully sink in, I would say that my overall impression of Paris is that it’s every bit the equal of the band’s last two albums, without sounding like it’s deliberately retreading too much of the same ground. Owel has always had a consistent level of quality to their songs that makes them often good, but with only a handful of truly outstanding highlights on each album, that sort of keeps them bubbling just under the list of bands I’d consider to be “the true greats” of this generation. They’ve got the potential, for sure. The way some of these songs twist and turn and surprise me, even knowing the band’s penchant for quietly ruminating and postponing the inevitable payoff, shows that they’re willing to subvert their own formula when it suits them, which is a good trait for a band to have once they’re a few albums deep into their career. Otherwise the old tricks that once worked for their audience can start to feel emotionally manipulative, if played again and again at regular intervals. I often don’t know what an Owel song truly means, especially with some of their more sparse and abstract lyrics, but boy, do I feel the depth of emotion that went into making most of ’em. And when they do hit me with an arresting lyrical allegory, as they do on a handful of tracks here, it feels like I’ve secretly discovered a group of kindred spirits. Somewhere between those gut reactions of “Wow man, I feel your pain and longing deep down” and “Wow, I’m really not sure what to think or feel, but that’s part of what makes it so fascinating”, is where I live as I listen and re-listen to Paris, and it’s a place I don’t mind inhabiting for quite a while longer.
1. Weather Report
As the last of the four singles released before the album, I hadn’t given myself much time to listen to this one on its own. But hearing it as the opener when the album came out, there was definitely a moment where it hit me: Owel is BACK, baby! It happened on the second verse where, after a rather hushed first verse and a chorus that I didn’t even realize at first was a Latin phrase, Jay suddenly switches from soft to loud, earlier than we’d usually expect it in the climax of an Owel song: “Everything’s GOOOOOONE!!! SOOOOO!!! WROOOOOONG!!!” Put in context of the rest of the lyrics, he’s highlighting how society and/or the environment seems to be in such a dangerous state that he’s afraid to even go outside, yet he sees a dear friend who is out and about having fun, aware of the risks yet feeling no fear, and he wants to be more like her. The idea of one person sitting safely indoors, listening to various news reports and calculating that the only smart move is to stay put, while he secretly admires someone who throws that caution to the wind is striking. It makes me think of being a kid, and getting told that you can’t play outside when it’s raining even though you know your friends are doing the exact same thing. That Latin phrase that sneaks into the chorus? The words are “Fluctuat nec mergitur”, which translates to “She is tossed by the waves but does not sink.” Don’t worry if you’re not enough o a genius to know that, because I didn’t even realize there was a chorus there beyond simple vocalization for its own sake to break up the verses, and the powerful message of the song still came across loud and clear, especially in the final verse when his friend seems to get swept away by the waves yet does not fear her fate. The way that the instrumentation hits a crescendo suits the situation being described – it opens with very modest fingerpicking on the electric guitar, light keyboards, and no percussion to speak of, and by the final verse, the guitars are ringing out with a nervous tremolo, the drums are pounding away like the drummer’s life depends on it, and the strings are being tossed about in a beautiful storm of sound. All of this is a stellar way to open the album that fits with the epic Owel has opened with in the past, yet lyrically it might be the one I connect with the most out of the the three.
2. A Message
The quivering presence of the violin (and the viola!) in this track become one of its defining forces. The strings were an important presence in the climax of the previous song, but here they establish an identity right at the beginning, letting us know that the band is in good hands for having entrusted this role to Patti Kilroy. Due to the trumpet and trombone that show up later, at times I’m tempted to view this song as more of a classical ensemble that just so happened to have a rock band meet up with it. But then I remember that the guitars and drums are pretty important too, at first faking me out into thinking this is going to be one of those mid-tempo songs that plods along like Coldplay circa 2002, but then unleashing the full force of the ensemble to give it an exhilarating, percussion heavy finish and then fade out on the horn section. A lot happens here in the space of five minutes. The lyrics are a simple concept, stated in elegant metaphors, as Jay wonders how words and instruments, the sound of which cannot be seen or touched, can be used to communicate a message that is in his head the way that a warm embrace or a beautiful paining could. It may as well be his thesis statement as a songwriter – and buddy, I feel your pain, trying to communicate with my words as a reviewer how your words and sounds are making me feel. You don’t make it an easy task, but I still feel like it’s a worthwhile one if it makes at least a few people want to hear it for themselves.
3. I Saw Red
I was a little nervous, way back in October 2018, when this song was released as the album’s first single. By the band’s own admission, it sounds quite dissimilar to the rest of the album, though I didn’t know that at the time. It’s more of a compact and easygoing indie pop song – and they’ve certainly done things like this before, most notably “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, but when they have, it’s generally felt like the hook has landed with a little more force. This song just sort of breezes by in comparison – you can tell there’s a chorus, but it’s softspoken enough to feel like it’s hinting at a later climax that never comes. (Plus, I’ve already heard Incubus do a song in which the chorus is “Goodbye… nice to know you!”, and I think that’s the only one I need.) The lyrics are interesting, but they introduce a color motif that they never really dive all that deep into – he feels “red” in the first verse because he’s in love, “blue” in the second because she had to go away, then “white” and “gray” in the bridge because he’s gone numb and he’s unsure of himself. Since the chorus is more repetitive and simple than their usual, there isn’t room for any variance in the lyrics to add nuance to the story each time it comes back around. And while the band performs this song elegantly, having this as my first taste of the album had me worried, because I didn’t hear the violin anywhere prominent in the mix. I’m sure Patti is in there somewhere, probably manning the keyboards (and there is a somewhat interesting semi-freakout near the end of the song where the keyboards seem to be drifting more and more out of key, giving it a hint of psychedelia as it gradually collapses). But I guess if it were me, I’d have chosen a song that highlighted her more and assured longtime fans that this aspect of Owel’s sound hadn’t been put on the back burner. Now that the album’s out, I can still enjoy this song for what it is without having unfair expectations of it, but I’ll be honest and say it’s still the least interesting of the full-length songs on this album.
4. Get Out Stay Out
Each Owel record is guaranteed to have at least one song that moves me to the brink of tears. It’s usually a safe bet that, watching the band perform it, Jay will appear to be getting close to that point as he sings it. This is that song for their third album – a long and slowly unfolding epic that starts off very hushed, with a pretty but restrained piano melody, keeping the vocals low in the mix as though he had a secret to tell. “You were not invited, I don’t know how you got in/There’s a reason why that door’s not open/But you stumble in like it’s a place you’ve been before/I don’t care you weren’t aware that I was home.” The idea here is that he’s singing to a burglar, an unwanted intruder in his home. The chorus, which at first quite calmly repeats the title of the song, makes it seem like he’s too intimidated by this person to banish them and loudly and authoritatively as he wants to. And that’s crucial to the song, especially as it does get to that point later where the full force of his desperation to be rid of them once and for all is finally made clear. What’s chilling is that I’m pretty sure the home robbery is just a metaphor. It seems like this song is making a statement about consent, using the home as a metaphor for a person’s body, and getting both into the mindset of the victim who is often too rattled by the experience to speak the full truth of what happened to them, and the excuses that others around them tend to make for why they “deserved” it due to their inaction or seeming to send the perpetrator mixed signals. The chorus needs to be as bare and simplistic as it possibly can so that by the time Jay is wailing it, with the strings and guitars going nuts at the end of the song, it’s a clearly stated “No!” with no ambiguity about it whatsoever. But man, some of those lines in the verses are truly devastating due to the implied commentary being made. “Just ’cause I’m not resisting doesn’t make it right.” We often blame victims for not fighting back against their attackers, or having the forethought to take a self-defense course or something like that. “I chased off all my neighbors.” We sometimes treat victims like they deserve their abuse, if we perceive them to be unfriendly or unsympathetic in their interactions with the other people around them. “Swear I won’t tell a soul
that I know who you are.” That one might cut to the quick more than any other line, since often these crimes are perpetrated by personal acquaintances of the victim, rather than random strangers, and the social dynamics involved make it that much harder for the victim to come forward. While this song makes it clear the the intruder is 100% wrong to barge in where they aren’t wanted, the question it seems to be asking between the lines is how we, the bystanders, are perpetuating the culture that allows these crimes to continue happening with such depressing frequency. That’s where Owel most ingeniously twists the knife here, and the result is an intentionally uncomfortable song to listen to, but a masterfully arranged and passionately performed one as well.
5. No Parachutes
After the heaviness of the previous song, it’s time for a little levity. Owel seems to have one song on each album the marches along with a sort of giddy confidence, finding a sort of nervous joy in the idea of turning over a new leaf or taking some sort of a risk. On their self-titled album, that song was “Progress”; on Dear Me, it was “Places”. They’ve recognized that they’re good enough at this sort of thing to promote the song as a single, thus “No Parachutes” was released as the follow-up to “I Saw Red” in early 2019. And this was where I first started to get really excited for the new album. The bright piano melody in the opening, paired with the playful snippets of violin, signal that this is going to be an upbeat, exhilarating mix of the band’s classical and pop sensibilities. Here, jay is diving into a new and exciting relationship with both feet and no backup plan. He compares it to building a plane out of found implements that were just lying around the house, and launching it on a transatlantic journey without bothering to pack any parachutes. It’s naive, but also quite charming, and the band’s joy is especially infectious when the rhythm section kicks in, the drums and bass becoming the dominant forces in a symphony that deftly balances its lighter and heavier sounds. This ended up being my favorite track on the album, and quite honestly it really should have been the lead single.
6. Sonnet for Silence
At less than two minutes and only six lines of lyrics, this is the shortest track on any Owel record thus far. It seems like a bit of a misfire, coming between two decidedly up-tempo highlights, but I suppose it’s not a terribly way to signal to the vinyl collectors that it’s time to change sides. Jay’s voice and guitar seem muted at the beginning of this one, reminding me of the opening of Radiohead‘s “You and Whose Army?”, but the song remains in low key mode, bringing in some strings and falsetto vocals, but acting as a pause for reflection rather than a build-up to something big. It’s OK. As he laments destroying whatever chances he seems to have at relationships due to either fear or inaction, I’m a bit amused at his choices of words when he laments “Smile and dream at day/Then piss away what’s left of the night.” But the song still feels like an incomplete snippet, so it’s the last thing on the record that I feel compelled to come back to on its own.
The somewhat jarring, percussive piano playing on this song, coupled with the upbeat pace of it and the borderline whimsical string parts, certainly give it a mood I’m not used to hearing from Owel. This is a song that needs to tell us right away it has a sense of humor, because otherwise its lyrics would come off as a bit problematic. See, Jay is musing on the idea that some people aren’t really appreciated until they’re dead, so he’s imagining what his own funeral would be like, how the people who took him for granted and the lovers who ultimately walked away would regret their actions once he’s in a casket. Played with the usual slow grandeur Owel is known for, this would be incredibly creepy, perhaps even a bit narcissistic. I’d be a bit worried for the guy, that he actually means all these things and has perhaps considered taking his own life to get back at people, which is not something I’d feel comfortable listening to a song about at all. But the lyrics escalate into ridiculousness to the point where I can tell he’s being deliberately over the top and he realizes things aren’t actually going to play out this way in real life: “Always so compassionate/Oh, a true humanitarian/ Cries the weeping president/While accompanied by violin.” Deep down, I think a lot of us probably would kill (figuratively speaking!!!) to be a ghost overhearing the nice things said about us at our own funeral, so it actually is relatable. But man, this is a stellar example of how the tempo of a song and the tone of the instruments being played can drastically change the apparent intent behind its words.
8. Roma White
The album’s third single was the only song from its back half to be previewed before the entire thing was released. For some reason, I heard this one and just sort of went, “Yep, that’s an Owel song” and didn’t really dig much deeper into it for the longest time. Maybe I thought some snippets of the melody, and the overall pace of it, were too similar to “Paper Hands” from Dear Me, which is a track I enjoyed on that record but didn’t consider a favorite. That is to say, it’s one of the tracks that doesn’t really advance Owel’s sound in any appreciable way – I enjoy listening to it more than “I Saw Red”, and the build from its slow, sensitive opening to another percussion-heavy big finish is expertly played, but ultimately there’s a sense of familiarity to it that I feel makes it a good, but not great song. The lyrics certainly had the best of intention, as Jay tries to comfort a friend who has been through something absolutely horrific, and he doesn’t know what to say, and he gradually realizes that him knowing “the right thing to say” isn’t what she’s looking for in the first place. As the chorus says: ” I can sit and just be here/And not have to be so terribly scared of silent air/And if all you’d like is a body in the room/The silence is scary, but it’s a joke compared to talking to yourself.” Those are wise words, worth remembering if you’re trying to be there for someone who is going through some stuff, and you’re tempted to respond with stock platitudes about how it’s all part of God’s plan or whatever.
9. Being Human Is Weird
While this song’s title (which, for the record, never appears on the lyrics) might be a bit too on the nose, I think it’s an interesting writing exercise to examine human behavior from the lens of an outsider (as Björk once did decades ago) and come to the conclusion that yeah, we do pretty strange things in order to connect with one another and to advance our social status. Owel’s take on this idea more specifically references the dating scene – hanging out in bars at night surrounded by sweaty strangers, trying to decide whether excessive perfume or cigarette smoke is the less deadly thing to be stuck inhaling, listening to the stupid small talk people make in the hopes of impressing the potential partners they anticipate taking home later than night, et cetera. Jay realizes that he himself is part of the problem, despite insisting again and again in the chorus that he’s “over it”. The most telling line where those hookups and later breakups are concerned comes in the bridge: “The things that I would do just to get inside/Of some woman’s blurred view/And all the things that I would do/To get out once I actually do.” Wow, those silly humans – always wanting most the things they don’t already have! This song is a tour de force for drummer Ryan Vargas, with some of the drum cadences he comes up with as the song gets thicker and more intense reminding me of a few of my favorite Future of Forestry records – which is a weird comparison to make, given the subject matter. The song as a whole may not be one of Owel’s most hands-down brilliant moments, but it’s an interesting risk for them to take nonetheless.
10. Jumble Gem
This track might be the album’s – and so far the band’s – most experimental composition. For the second track in a row, we’ve got a title that doesn’t figure into the actual lyrics, and this time around, the words we get are wide open to interpretation, with a man musing on how his time is running out and he’s lucky to have known “the warmth of someone’s kindness” for as long as he has. I haven’t made much headway in terms of meaning beyond that, but I think the song’s title is an apt description of its sound. The piano, guitar and strings all seem to be fluttering about at their own rates during the first part of the song, only to eventually collide with yet another of the intriguing percussion breakdowns that Paris has to offer, this time with the bass really fuzzed out and the band playing up the jerky syncopation for all it’s worth. I hate to keep playing the Radiohead card when the band has such a wide array of influences aside from them, but this one really reminds me of something like “Pyramid Song” or “Bloom” or “Daydreaming”, where the rhythm of it is a bit disorienting until you listen more intently and start to get a sense of the intended pattern behind the misleading chaos.
11. Didn’t I
After a few rather off-the-wall deep cuts, it’s surprising to me that Owel saved one of their more upbeat and (relatively speaking) straightforward songs for the penultimate slot on this album. The galloping drums and triumphant strings make it sound like a hero has come riding back from winning some sort of a battle, even though the actual scene being portrayed finds Jay feeling rather defeated. The music isn’t as whimsical as “Funeral”, but it’s in a similar vein, and the setting this time around is a wedding rather than a funeral – specifically, the wedding of one of his former lovers to another man. He seems content to let the ceremony take place without making the cliched (and highly inadvisable in real life) move of objecting at the last second and trying to declare his own love for the bride in the hopes that she’ll leave her fiance at the altar. But you can tell he’s probably thought about doing it, given how he ponders the couple’s names washing away in the surf after their wedding on the beach has concluded. He keeps trying to reassure himself that he knows better than to hold out hope at this point, but as the fanciful strings play him out, somewhere in his mind that long-lost romance is still going strong.
The closing track is the album’s longest, just barely beating “Get Out Stay Out” by mere seconds. It’s a slow burn for sure, with a lot of disjointed, nearly-whispered lyrics in falsetto, some of which seem to be borrowed from children’s songs, storybooks, or lullabies, such as “Goodnight moon” or “Little light of mine”. The song’s structure is abstract enough that it’s hard for me to pin down a specific verse or chorus, yet the guitars and vocals seem to come back to the same melodic motif enough times to avoid feeling like the song is just wandering off into the night with no particular goal in mind. The expected crescendo, when it finally comes, is a good reminder of how confident Owel has gotten in their ability to play the long game. This song doesn’t strike me as particularly unusual given what I know of the band so far, and as far as ethereal album closers go, I’m still of the opinion that “Reborn” remains their strongest. Still, it’s interest to see how much of a song they’ve built around a rather skeletal set of lyrics and a whole lot of comforting “ooh-ooh”-ing from their lead singer. This band still communicates a mood quite well, even when they’re saying very little with actual words.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Weather Report $1.75
A Message $1.25
I Saw Red $.75
Get Out Stay Out $2
No Parachutes $2
Sonnet for Silence $.25
Roma White $1
Being Human Is Weird $1.25
Jumble Gem $1.25
Didn’t I $1.25
Jay Sakong: Lead vocals, guitar, keyboards
Seamus O’Connor: Guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Nunzio Moudatsos: Bass, backing vocals
Ryan Vargas: Drums, percussion
Patti Kilroy: Violin, keyboards, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: