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The Graham Album Review #1877

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American Football: American Football
by George Graham

(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/9/2016)

Every rock band has a story, how they come together and how they strive for success. Sometimes, it’s a long slow, methodical and arduous process, groups working their way up from playing open mics to local bars and aiming for that proverbial big break. These days, when the major label record business has become pretty much irrelevant, the process has altered some, with groups building their following with a lot of touring and social media. And sometimes a band will end up being a kind of accidental thing, making music for the fun of it, and with the members not willing to throw themselves at the mercy of the often-difficult music business. Once in a while, such a band may make a memorable record, and under such circumstances, often there is not a followup.

This week we have one of those accidental bands, whose members were basically dabblers who made an album, did almost no touring, and broke up before they really were a formal band. But in this case, they made an album that thanks to the Internet and social media has developed something of a cult cult following. That was in 1999, and now 17 years later, the group has reunited and made a very impressive and distinctive album that is a kind of cross between alternative rock and art rock. The band call themselves American Football, and their new release is also called American Football.

The band goes back to a pair of teenagers in Wheeling, Illinois, near Chicago, where guitarists Steve Holmes and Mike Kinsella met as freshmen in high school. They kept up an informal jam schedule at the University of Southern Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Steve Lamos was also at Champaign and had some formal training on trumpet and violin. He played had in a polka band with his father, but wanted to get into the rock world and decided to take up the drums. The three formed a kind of informal band. In fact, Kinsella did not even own guitar equipment, but borrowed it every time. But they eventually made an EP, and then became friends with Mike Lunceford, who had recently moved to Champaign and was founding an independent label called Polyvinyl Records. He invited the band to record a full album, but during the process, the members were being pulled apart, in one case by the need top get a job to pay off student loans. So they looked at their full length album, which like the new one was also called American Football as a kind of valedictory, and planned to break up.

But their album caught on in certain circles while the band members went on with their generally non-musical lives. With that album becoming something of a delayed phenomenon on the Internet, the three original members, together with Nate Kinsella on bass, have released the new album American Football, and have launched a tour.

The new album is simple in form yet quite distinctive in sound. It’s basically two guitars, bass drums and vocals, but stylistically it’s a bit like art rock with quirky, seemingly angular rhythms with a clear, sparking electric guitar sound, and pleasing lead vocals. The lyrics are fairly poetic, and often melancholy. With the guys in the band now being older, their love songs sometimes revolve around relationships in an existing marriage, rather than falling in or out of love for the first time. It’s a fairly succinct album at 38 minutes, but there is no filler material. Each song has has something that makes it interesting, most often the rhythms, which sometimes superimpose three, four or six beat figures, that can hint vaguely at the music of the Police. While the band is self contained on the album, drummer Steve Lamos gets out his trumpet from time to time.

Opening is a piece called Where Are We Now, which illustrates the interesting but attractive sound of American Football, with a kind of ethereal texture. <<>>

My Instincts Are the Enemy is another creative piece both musically and lyrically, with some nice vocals and the band’s distinctive rhythmic approach. <<>>

With acoustic guitar added to the sonic texture is one of the album’s most appealing tracks, Home Is Where the Haunt Is, with some of the album’s best lyrics. <<>>

The melancholy side of the album’s words are highlighted on I’ve Been Lost for So Long. Its bright melody and upbeat sound contrasts with the lyrics apparently about depression. <<>>

Another lyrically serious song is called Give Me the Gun, which is about one of those situations with a person who got himself a gun and threatened to do harm. Again, the lyrics contrast somewhat with the creative music, featuring band’s trademark counter-rhythms. <<>>

About as close as American Football gets to a rock sound comes on Desire Gets in the Way, which the band still manages to make quite interesting both musically and lyrically. <<>>

The album ends with Everyone Is Dressed Up which does more reflecting on life from the standpoint of someone contemplating middle age. <<>>

American Football, the new second album by the band of the same name, comes 17 years after their debut album. It was a group that was in the process of breaking up as their first album was released. They apparently did not take being a band that seriously. But after enough Internet interest in the 1999 debut album, the group reunited – no mean feat with the members in Southern Illinois, Chicago, and Denver. And after releasing this album, they will be doing essentially their first tour, including traveling to England. The new record is first rate, an appealing combination of near-art rock musical complexity, and poetic, often introspective lyrics.

Our grade for sound quality is very close to an A. The sound is very clean, with the guitars and vocals showing very nice clarity and none of the sonic dirt that is so common on alternative rock albums these days. There is some dynamic range to there recording, but it would have been much better without the volume compression applied to jack up the loudness.

American Football could have been one of those obscure one-album wonders with a cult following. But now 17 years later, with they are back with an outstanding new record, and they are even going on tour for the first time in this more or less accidental band’s history. Better late than never.

(c) Copyright 2016 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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