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Owen finds new direction with ‘New Leaves’

September 24, 2009
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New Leaves
September 22, 2009

Rating: 7.9/10

For his fifth studio full length as Owen Chicago-based singer/songwriter Mike Kinsella found a new inspiration and a new direction for his music.

Through the course of his previous four albums Kinsella has been progressively progressing as a songwriter. Each album in his discography is more refined and precise, though each one incorporates more elements than the next.

It is interesting how Kinsella has added a new sonic dimension to each album while making it sound more succinct each time.

In the three years since his last proper release, Owen has only issued a few seven-inch singles and an EP of songs originally released as Japanese bonus tracks. This lull has led many of the Owen faithful hungry for more, happily, New Leaves does not disappoint.

New Leaves provides a warm, vibrant sound. That doesn’t necessarily mean there is more going on, but rather the layers individually stand out more to create a more vivid aural product than what has been done previously. This is probably a byproduct of working with professional engineers more extensively than with past releases.

Kinsella is expertly adept at contrasting his tender acoustic rhythms with fuzzed-out lead riffs. He softens the clash of those parts on this album, creating a more delicate beauty within the songs on the album.

This album also features more orchestration, building upon 2006’s At Home With, and creating more diversity on New Leaves.

Songs like “A Trenchant Critique” really hit hard with percussion, and as the piano bounces playfully against the guitar and bass the song becomes something completely different, something better.

It is a departure from his older material somewhat. However, it doesn’t feel like it is being performed by a different artist, rather, an older and wiser artist.

It’s almost cliché to call the progression evident on this album maturity, but there is no better word to describe how the music has changed. With the addition of a baby to his life, Kinsella has changed. Changed for better, of course.

His maturity bleeds through to his writing and, perhaps, the happier side of Owen emerges.

Lyrics from past albums tend to be a bit morose, or self-depreciating; take for instance “The Ghost of What Should’ve Been” from No Good for No One Now. He softly croons about lost love and what that should have become.

On New Leaves the subject matter is a bit cheerier, as Kinsella sings of love (“These old bones don’t feel so old when I’m home with you,” from “Never Been Born”), and of marriage (“Now I know who I am, a tongue-biting, one-woman man,” from “Amnesia and Me”).

On this album he conveys, through his writing, his own happiness. It feels genuine, and it feels good to listen to.

Of course, New Leaves is not a complete departure, and no Owen album would be complete without some kind of pessimism. Kinsella spreads the wealth this time, picking on close relations on “Good Friends, Bad Habits” and, of course, himself on “Curtain Call.”

He proves, once again, that he can deliver the meanest messages with the prettiest voice. On the song “Ugly on the Inside” his words are about as friendly as the title would suggest. The music, on the other hand, is some of the most elegantly composed on the whole album.

This latest Owen album is certainly among the elite within Kinsella’s impressive history. It builds upon the foundation of his past work and sets the stage for an even more impressive sixth album.

For now, however, New Leaves is more than adequate to enjoy.

Originally posted in The Daily Vidette.

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