After 17 years, American Football returns with stagnant ‘LP2’

Polyvinyl Record Co./Courtesy
American Football American Football | Polyvinyl Record Co.
Grade: C+

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Names may not be changed, and the same can be said for a “sad songs” image, suburban heartbreak, and gentle instrumentation. But an unruly commitment to retaining these tropes comes with a lack of sincerity and an unwillingness to improve. American Football is perhaps best known for their 1999 debut LP, American Football, breaking up shortly after their album released. The record received critical praise but the individual members of American Football remained engaged in other musical projects, such as Owen, Joan of Arc and The One Up Downstairs, until recently.

The foremost question raised by this American Football album (referred to as LP2) is its relationship to the debut album, doubly so because of the title. LP2 contains many of the same elements of American Football —the instrumentation, softly heartbroken tone and entangled melodies — but while the arrangements are engaging, and the album maintains interest through varied instrumentation and well-layered motifs, this is territory that has been well trod by the band already, and these variations fail to be as engaging than their ballads from 1999.

The tracks run shorter and LP2 lacks any instrumental songs to offer a respite. LP2 offers a lineup of nine songs based on standard rock instrumentation, with occasional appearances from a trumpet and a vibraphone, just as on American Football. But the songs are of fairly uniform length, giving the album a predictable pace, in contrast to the varied length and pace of its precedent. Some tracks are composed of two parts, but on the whole listening is a drudge through songs of equal length and mood.

The time signatures, melodies and lyrics have, for the most part, stayed the same. As part of an album in 2016, they fall short. The guitars and bass hold a clean, bright tone, and contort themselves into overlapping and opposing rhythms. There is a sense of echo and space communicated through the production, recalling an empty house or half-remembered dream. The reverb layered on Mike Kinsella’s voice throughout the album causes it to distractingly glisten over the instruments. While the resounding vibraphone occasionally parallels the vocals nicely, often they oversaturate the tracks with saccharine ringing. The gentler notes are simply overpowered.

The lyrics follow conventional emo themes of ghosts, memory and expectations, lamenting over past choices, lack of control and lost love. But they lack the sad punch of Kinsella’s early 20’s vocals, and the lyrics often feel clumsy, as if the driving emotions were distorted after the fact to fit their precedent.

The second track, “My Instincts Are the Enemy,” demonstrates the slow flood of the album’s sound. A gentle, drawling opening guitar motif repeats as a second, brighter guitar subtly accents and then echoes the riff. The track shifts into a second rhythm as all the instruments but one guitar play a simple repetition of flashing notes and an ambient whirring of Kinsella’s voice fades out. In contrast to the forward momentum of the track, Kinsella complains, “What can I do?/Chained to this mood/You’re chained to me.”

American Football was notable for its successful execution of sad lyrics and dreary drawls over complex time signatures and competing melodies, bringing a softer voice to the mid-90s emo scene populated by bands like Sunny Day Real Estate. But in the 17 year hiatus, bands such as This Town Needs Guns and The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die have explored and developed upon the niche. It’s hard to see any notion of development of the band’s sound, and hard to credit even stagnation, despite the 17 years of emotional and musical experience that have passed.

LP2 only pulls on the strings of the original album, producing a record that replicates a successful work by sickeningly contorting tropes that worked previously, but have fundamentally changed, into their previous configurations.

Contact Patrick Tehaney at [email protected].