Review: Mike & Nate Kinsella Experiment with New Sounds as LIES

The Kinsella nebula of musical projects is as vast as it is unlikely. Brothers Mike and Tim first cut their teeth in the Midwest emo scene with the beloved Cap’n Jazz in the 90’s before the band’s implosion sent them in different directions (Mike to college downstate in Champaign, Tim to found indie-rock band Joan of Arc). The origin stories of Mike Kinsella’s American Football are hyper-mythologized in certain corners of the internet. Subsequent endeavors like Owen and Owls followed as his career progressed through a few starts and stops. 

When American Football reformed to much fanfare in the late 2010’s, cousin Nate Kinsella filled in on bass and backing vocals. Before joining his cousin, Nate had bounced around various solo pursuits and other bands, including a number of collaborations with the brothers. If all this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. 

With an unmistakable sound that’s evident in each of these projects, listeners are tasked with sifting through the twinkling guitars and weird time signatures to find the subtle differences between what makes an Owen record, and what makes an American Football record. 

Due to the pandemic disrupting American Football’s ability to record, Mike and Nate decided to take the material they were working on in a fresh direction. The result is the duo’s eponymous album LIES, which was released in March on the Polyvinyl label. 

While LIES doesn’t feel like a completely blank canvas, there are flourishes of new sounds to explore. This collection of songs features the signature math-y guitars and song structure, but the blueprint is bolstered with complex arrangements and additional instrumentation. Gone is the scaled-back indie rock you can picture being recorded in a dorm room, but fuller, more lavish sonic qualities take the forefront of this ambitious record. 

When LIES started their brief spring tour on Sunday in their hometown at Sleeping Village, it would be their first official performance as a band. It was the duo’s first Chicago appearance since American Football’s lauded three-night stand at Schubas Tavern in the “before COVID-times.” 

First up were local mainstays Aitis Band, who played their experimental post-punk to a crowd there to hear an entirely different musical niche. The trio’s gloomy layering of synths, sludgy bass, and a range of sound effects was compelling, but they were probably better-suited opening for fellow Chicago punks Deeper or FACS. Still, their spacey din filled up the venue, as each track built and bubbled towards towering conclusions. Impressively, they won the crowd over by the time their tight 40 minutes concluded. 

Next up were LIES . Given the eclectic instrumentation on the album, it was surprising to find the band’s live setup being simply the two Kinsellas. Mike performed as the sole guitarist and vocalist, with Nate shouldering the percussion, synthesizer, and multi-instrumental duties. 

It was a night of firsts for these two, and luckily for the crowd, it worked quite well. The band opened with “Broken,” which is one of the more perplexing tracks on the album. It featured a number of sound effects, and almost polyrhythmic percussion. The burst of drums and noise that started the set was the most abrupt these musicians have ever been. But the flickering synths and comforting vocals helped the track settle in. The family’s familiar self-deprecating stage banter punctuated many of the songs, and if the pair felt any butterflies, there was little evidence of it. 

It can’t be overstated how impressive Nate’s workrate was for the live performance. In this live setup, Nate’s dynamic performance on percussion propelled these songs forward, as opposed to merely keeping time for American Football’s signature weave of guitar melodies. He was also managing an array of keys and synths throughout each song, and even managed to lend soft backing vocals when needed. 

One of the set’s highlights was “Resurrection.” Even after multiple decades of output, this is one of the most climactic songs Mike Kinsella has ever released. Shimmering strings erupt and accent the groove that the guitars lay down, providing contours to the song structure instead of layers. These songs feel like they build, even explode, rather than merely expand and morph. 

Dreamy soundscapes are a welcome addition to the duo’s repertoire, and their experiments with synths are one of the most notable achievements of LIES. It allows them to operate in peaks and valleys. The quieter, more contemplative songs stretch for minutes, allowing Mike Kinsella’s vocal yearnings to be acutely felt. 

Even with the synth-pop angle, there are several bleak moments that cut through the trademark bittersweetness. On tracks like “Knife” and “Rouge Vermouth,” this is the most devastating Mike Kinsella has ever sounded, vocally and musically. That is saying something, given the confessional nature of his Owen albums. The revamped arrangement and strings give these songs the heft needed to convey the depth of these emotions. 

There are also energetic bursts made possible by the spirited percussion and broadened sonic palette. “Camera Chimera” and “Summer Somewhere” benefit from hastened BPM and an urgency that makes these songs the closest things the Kinsellas have gotten to actual pop songs. This is surprisingly accessible music, which might be the true defining features of this LIES project. 

With a somewhat novel live lineup and new sounds to experiment with, LIES have crafted one of the most surprising albums in the family canon. The veteran duo is able to translate this new concept to a live setting, though the record’s scope in reality requires more than two players to fully realize its ambitions. It’s hard to tell how often this iteration will release music and perform, but this intriguing chapter in the Kinsellas’ careers is a worthwhile listen. 

LIES band photo by Alexa Viscius

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Patrick Daul