Review: Owel – Dear Me: This is not your heart to break; you’ll break it anyway.

By David Martin

Artist: Owel
Album: Dear Me
Year: 2016
Grade: B+

In Brief: Dear Me is every bit as complex, immersive, beautiful, and haunting as Owel’s self-titled debut. Both albums sit right on the cusp of greatness, and I’m honestly having trouble figuring out which one I like more. It’s a good problem to have.
Owel went from “Never heard of ’em” to “OMG these guys are amazing why haven’t more people heard of ’em?!” in my mind pretty quickly. Stylistically, it’s hard to describe exactly what sets them apart from a lot of the other indie rock bands I’m into. Lots of bands have these long, exploratory song structures, or are instrumentally very lush, or are cryptically poetic, but Owel seems to hit the sweet spot on all of those things, where there’s more than enough beauty to keep it accessible, yet they take more than enough detours to keep things unpredictable on the first several listens. A lesser band could have easily painted themselves into a corner by opening their very first album with a track as hauntingly moving as “Snowglobe” – which in my mind is still their signature song, and the starting point I’d definitely recommend for anyone new to the band. But there was so much else to love about that album, as there was about the four songs on last year’s Every Good Boy EP, which was apparently comprised of the songs that got jettisoned from their second full-length (or else were just to good for the band to sleep on until they could get that second album finished). Even when they’re doing seemingly straightforward, upbeat indie pop, there’s a decent amount of lyrical intrigue and musical complexity to it beneath the surface. The band functions so cohesively as a unit, that while my attention is most often drawn to Jay Sakong‘s lead vocals changing on a dime from intimate to intense, or to Jane Park‘s stirring violin and keyboard melodies, or to Ryan Vargas‘s exhilirating drum fills and occasional use of polyrhythms, there’s so much good to say about the way that the fivesome all play off of one another that I often can’t pick out the single MVP in a particular song. Owel is certainly still a “rock” band due to the prominent use of guitars, but their songs can just as easily be draped in icy keyboards or staccato strings, taking their sweet time to unfold into the climax that you pretty much always know is coming. It’s hard to do this sort of thing without those climaxes becoming predictable and cliched, so it says a lot that after two albums and a EP, 27 total tracks from this band thus far, I haven’t seen any signs of them starting to repeat themselves.

The band’s sophomore album, Dear Me, just came out in November. It feels like I was waiting forever and a day for this thing, after first being turned on to the band in early 2014. For a lot of bands starting out with such a promising record as this band’s \debut, there’s nowhere to go but to start dismantling fan expectations and come up with something stylistically more broad, but also less coherent as a result. Second albums are generally difficult for this reason. Owel, however, is in the rare position of having found a way to enrich their sound without any obvious growing pains or pandering to a wider audience. The twelve new songs on Dear Me would fit comfortably alongside their previous work, and yet there’s something more dark and dreamlike about this album that feels like a bit of a progression. Opening with a few of its slower, longer tracks is a move that reminds me of Elbow, a band that’s very gradually become a favorite of mine despite defying my expectations that the punchy, catchy stuff must always be upfront. You can also hear the obvious influences of Radiohead and Sigur Rós in the textures and moods of many of these songs, though I wouldn’t say Owel is as deliberately subversive as either of those bands. “Breathtaking drama” is more their speed. And there are definitely a few glorious up-tempo numbers on this record, but that’s a place for the band to visit, not so much for them to live. Dear Me is over an hour long, and it asks a lot of a brand new listener, but like all of the aforementioned bands, their music is definitely worth the patience it takes to let the songs slowly seep into your memory banks. There’s not a single dud track on this record, so there’s a very good chance that after three or four listens (and I recommend headphones for this, or at the very least a quiet room with no one else in it), several of them will get their hooks deep into you and refuse to let go.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Slow
Who starts an album off by telling you to slow things down? Well, Owel’s not the first to do it, but it’s still unusual. This ornate song feels a bit like a waltz that occasionally steps on itself – they’re deliberately messing with our perception of the time signature here, just as they did on “Razors”, and it evokes a sense of awkward beauty. I love how the violin meshes with the crashing cymbals in this song’s melodic refrain, while the guitar forms these little decorative curlicues around it. Jay begins the song cycle by pleading with a lover to pause and take a breath, and ask herself if she’s really ready to leave or if she could stand to just wait a while and let him sort things out. I love how there’s this little embellishment in his vocal during the second verse when he sings “Just say farewell, southern belle”, and he stretches out the word “farewell” as if, just for two seconds, he wanted to be a soul singer. The off-kilter swaying motion of the song develops into something much more intense as the band gets down to business at the end of the song, with the drums going into overdrive and the backing vocals throwing their weight behind Jay, making that last minute plea for peace and quiet despite everything seeming to speed up and get more intense.
Grade: B+

2. Pale Soft Light
A six-minute opening track with a seven-and-a-half minute follow-up? Owel is clearly in no hurry here. The thing is, the pace of these opening songs isn’t super-slow, per se, but I’d definitely refer to both of them as complex ballads, especially this one, which starts with the precise ticking of a guitar arpeggio, soon joined by the plucking of Jane’s violin strings, giving me the feeling that it’s counting down to something. You wouldn’t consider this a “rock” song in the conventional sense due to how it seems to focus on everything but the guitar as it slowly develops. But pay attention to both the vocals and the drums, and how they build up from a sort of careful tiptoeing at the beginning to a maelstrom of intensity at the end. This one’s more about setting a mood than hooking you in with a memorable riff or chorus, but when those drum fills finally come rolling in and Jay’s voice reaches its edgy peak, it’s truly a powerful composition to behold. And then it even has time to wind down a bit by returning to the opening arpeggio before a sudden snap of the fingers snuffs the lights off for good. I truly have no idea what this song is even about, but I really enjoyed the time Owel took to fully explore it before moving on.
Grade: B+

3. Too Young to Fall in Love
Alright, so you wanted a strong beat and a catchy riff? You’ll get your fix here. Though simple and even a bit repetitive, the guitar riff and the electronic crackle of the drums set a wonderfully icy mood, serving as one of the closest things to a traditional “radio rock” sort of hook you’ll get on this album. Jay’s lyrics are in top melancholy form here, lamenting a sort of self-inflicted curse that renders him unable to be content in any one place for too long. This was one of the first pieces of the puzzle that slid into place in my mind, allowing me to go back and give “Slow” some context after the fact. His youth seems to be detrimental to his ability to make a commitment, which is why she’s apparently so ready to up and leave him and start over with someone else. His vision of a “My bride in the mirror/The one I’ve yet to know” seems ripped from the diary of any hopless romantic, but he knows it’s a dream that he keeps sabotaging. While this song could be considered to have a “chorus” in the conventional sense, I almost feel like the song’s true refrain lies in its wordless guitar hook. The band does such a good job of weaving their instruments throughout the verse and bridge melody in order to bring us back to that simple cry for help to break the pattern.
Grade: A+

4. Be Quiet
The simple strum of an acoustic guitar makes me think this is gonna be a more laid-back, “coffeehouse Owel” sort of track at first. This mid-tempo tune certainly seems like the kind of thing that would translate well in an unplugged setting, but once the cascading piano melody and the violin come in, it develops into more of a majestic, chamber pop sort of tune. By the time the climax hits, the guitars have switched to full-on electric power chords, and the group vocals have become a bit of a sing-along, we’re almost in full-on Britpop mode, though I think this time around they’re pulling it off a little more effectively than they did on “The Unforgiving Tide” (which was my least favorite track on their debut). While this isn’t my favorite thing for Owel to sound like, I’m intrigued by how the anthemic mood masks the depression inherent in Jay’s lyrics. Dude just needs a day to lie in bed and not do squat. Maybe a year, if the lyrics are taken literally. His words might seem a bit petulant, but he’s really waiting to find his voice again and believe he’s got something worth saying that the world would actually want to hear. Though it’s a small thing, I find it amusing how he says in one of the verses “They might say I’ve given in/But I’ve given up, and there’s a difference.” I feel like he might be the first songwriter to use the phrase “giving in” as something other than the result of being painted into a lyrical corner after saying something about giving up. I wouldn’t say that the song makes this difference 100% clear… perhaps “giving up” is more like a conscious choice to quit while you have something left to salvage, while “giving in” is more like being so battered that your structural/moral integrity buckles under the weight? The thought of how that meaning changes subtly with a different preposition certainly teases the part of my brain that likes to nitpick the English language.
Grade: B

5. Paper Hands
One of the few truly upbeat tracks is up next – I would say it makes sense that this is also the album’s shortest tracks due to its faster pace (at a comparatively scant 3:45), but I’ll get to a track in the second half of the album that defies that rule. This one has a bit of cryptic sentimentality to it – Jay is dreaming about what he will do when he and a lover have grown old together, and for whatever reason it involves sitting down by the kitchen sink and washing her paper hair with his paper hands. (Should I point out that paper and water don’t mix well? I’m sure that wasn’t an accident.) He doesn’t stick with the metaphor long enough to make a fully developed story out of it, but the snapshot it does provide is at once wistful and tragic. As he holds the soft, high notes on the chorus while the drums and guitars busily breeze on by, I’m reminded quite strongly of track five on their first album, “Nothing’s Meant”, which I can’t help but feel like this one must be referencing in some oblique way.
Grade: B

6. I Am Not Yours
The album’s first half concludes with a six-minute epic that was another one of the first tracks to really grab my attention. While crescendos galore are all but guaranteed on an Owel record, the one in this song may be one of the band’s most devastating, as the entire song seems to be trying to wean two lovers off of the idea that they are each other’s soulmates and saviors. The way Jay sings it is so beautiful, yet his words are so devastating as he underscores the temporary nature of their relationship: “Though we suffer from the same disease, we both suffer differently/And though I do adore, you are not my cure/And I am not yours.” It seems almost nihilistic at first, but there’s something compelling in how he relinquishes a sense of ownership here, as if to say we never know how long we truly have to share with someone, and worrying about that could sabotage the potential beauty of the shared time we have left. Owel gracefully reminds me on this track of why I’m glad they’re not a heavier rock band. The guitars and drums get incredibly loud as this one boils over, but the way they started with a graceful, melodic approach before shifting the tone of the song and blitzing us with a wall of power chords is a great example of less being more. I get chills when Jay slips into a startling falsetto right near the end: “This is not your heart to break… You’ll break it anyway!” A lot of rock bands going for this emo of a climax probably would have screamed that line. And it would have sounded predictably goofy. But the way he sings it here is, quite appropriately, heartbreaking.
Grade: A

7. Steal the Moon
Despite the two songs sounding nothing alike, I can’t help but hear the wintry keyboard intro to this song in my head whenever I recall the ending of “I Am Not Yours”. The hand-off from one song to the next is just so gracefully done. This one maintains a dreamlike state throughout, the syncopated rhythm of the keyboards giving it an almost wintry feel, while the drums and occasional electronic effects subtly clash with that rhythm here and there, trying to insist on a 4/4 beat. The result is a slight aural dissonance that pairs well with a lyric about a man being confused for someone he’s not. No matter how much he may try to move heaven and earth for the woman he loves, she can only see him as a liar, a thief, a backstabber. Due to how softly Jay’s vocals float by in the chorus, it took me a while to realize that I was so transfixed by the soothing melody that I missed the words: “Now whose skin am I in/And who’s in my skin?” I love the song even more now that I understand the sort of identity crisis it’s trying to describe. But the main thing I love it for is how delicately interwoven all the instruments are – the keyboard, the bells, the gentle guitar soloing, the synth bass and the soft drums. Nothing in this song is particularly loud or climactic, but it’s nice to have a rest from that while realizing there’s still quite a lot going on instrumentally.
Grade: A-

8. Annabel
This behemoth seven minute track may be the most emotionally heavy thing that Owel has done. It’s not as instrumentally or vocally intense as the end of “I Am Not Yours”, but the way it keeps rumbling forward like a freight train on an inevitable collision course with doom makes me think of a darker, more guitar-based “Snowglobe”. (Particularly during the brooding bass drop in the bridge.) A woman desperately seeking escape from a life she no longer seems to feel any passion for is at the center of this song, and the lyrics don’t pull any punches about the options in front of her: “She lays out on the table/A pair of shears, a ball of twine/Her mother’s meds she could pair with/Her father’s favorite wine.” Though later in the song, it seems like options other than suicide are being explored, such as buying a plane ticket and getting away from it all, the song refuses to give her any easy solutions or even tell us the outcome. The point of it is to get into her headspace as she mulls over the question, “Now which of these will work the most and hurt the least?” What’s most terrifying is that she doesn’t seem to feel afraid… she’s just numb. Though there’s a lot of darkness to this song, Owel maintains an eerily beautiful tone throughout – the climactic final minutes of this song feel more like a release, a chance to finally let in the emotion that’s been locked outside for so long. But the creepiest part of it may be when it ends, and there’s a ghostly female voice whispering in the shadows, “Wake up”, and then suddenly it stops, someone takes a breath, and the band continues on to the next song as if they’ve just been jolted out of a nightmare.
Grade: A

9. Not Today
I described the keyboards in “Steal the Moon” as “wintry”. Here I’d describe them as “icy”. This song feels like it’s sleepwalking, and I’m probably thinking that because of the weird “Wake up” transition, but the lyrics are fitting as well, because they talk about wanting to hit the snooze alarm and stay in bed, and basically just take a mulligan on whatever you had originally planned today. This is either what going through a depressive state is like, or else it’s just about being an extreme procrastinator. Either way, at different times in my life I’ve been able to relate. Despite the slower, more rigid pace of the song, I really enjoy the electronic punch and snap of the drums and the way Jay’s vocal in the second verse momentarily gets chewed up by some sort of creepy pitch-shifting effect, as if there’s something far more sinister lurking underneath the sleepy haze. I love how there are so many intriguing little details to gradually notice over time in even the mellower “comedown” tracks on this records.
Grade: B

10. Places
This album’s been incredibly dark and moody for the last several tracks, so the bright piano melody that opens this song, and the confident march of its rhythm when it gets going, are an excellent change of pace at this point. I love that it starts off gracefully, keeping the piano and strings prominent for a verse or so, before bring the whole band in and then going into full-on cheerful mode. Remember what I said earlier about up-tempo tracks being shorter as a rule? This is the exception. It’s six and a half minute of what feels like a jolly springtime parade, and I can’t get enough of it. What’s most intriguing about it is how, in the midst of Jay’s hopeless romantic fantasies – “Cue the orchestra to swell when our mouths meet/Rising louder now until we’re under sheets” – he still seems to admit it’s all just a “hopelessly deranged” pipe dream that he’s too far gone to ever make come true. He’s at least found a happy place to visit in his mind’s eye. Sometimes that’s an important part of working through a period of depression and loneliness, even though in and of itself, it’s not the answer. When this thing really picks up steam, I’m reminded of the song “Progress”, which was two tracks before the end on their debut, and had a similar “joyous march” sort of quality to it. And I loved that track, but man, this one blows it out of the water.
Grade: A+

11. Ocean Legs
I said there were no dud tracks on this record, and I’m going to stick by that statement, but first I have a surprise for you. Actually, I have no surprises for you. Specifically, the Radiohead song “No Surprises”, which the glockenspiel melody in the opening of this song mimics a little too closely for comfort. I’m not going to say that the entire song is a ripoff – I’ve made Radiohead comparisons before when listening to this band and it’s never bothered me. But it’s also never been this obvious. The song certainly goes for more of a rock climax than the OK Computer track it’s based on, with moody guitars blaring and the strings once again working themselves into a frenzy. But it feels more like a typical wall of power chords here, making the song slightly tedious in comparison to the more elegant climaxes heard in a lot of Owel’s other songs. Still, I’ve got to give this one credit. It gives meaning to the album title, Dear Me, as Jay tries to personify the different virtues he either has in some amount or feels that he totally lacks: “Sweet hope, you’ve been sweet to me/Although I’ve always secretly/Wanted to meet your cousin faith/Patience, you’ve been patient/What would it take for you to show?/But I don’t want you anymore.” It’s a good “taking stock of yourself” kind of song that ends the cycle of heartbreak and depression on a semi-hopeful note, as if to say he’s finally got his bearings and feels brave enough to weather the rest of the storm.
Grade: B-

12. Albert and the Hurricane
I love how this one opens on an appropriately “watery” guitar melody, which was naggingly familiar to me when it first came wafting in. It took me a few listens to realize that I was thinking of the opening moments of Jeff Buckley‘s classic “Mojo Pin”. That’s never a bad influence to have. That circular guitar melody becomes the basis for what I thought was an instrumental track, until I looked online and realized this thing actually had lyrics, which I can no hear being sung very faintly in the background. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It’s thematically appropriate, I suppose, that the meaning of this song would get buried in the storm of meandering guitar melodies and thick drum fills. (Side note: The way that the drums initially establish a pattern of shifting from the downbeat to the upbeat, and then back again, reminds me very much of their first album’s closing track, “Reborn”. Is it weird that I keep finding vague references to their first album in tracks that are pretty much at the same spot in the tracklisting?) Still, I feel pretty strongly that if you have a lyric worth including in your song, it should be audible enough for the audience to understand what you’re singing, so I always have problems with the deliberate obscuring of lyrics in the mix. Still, if I take this one purely as an instrumental, it’s a captivating way to close the album, and as it hits a final crescendo and collapses into a wave of feedback, I love how perfectly the final three-note bell motif fits in at the end, just as it did in the opening seconds of “Slow”. Maybe the whole story is a cyclical one? That’s a scary thought.
Grade: B+

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Slow $1.25
Pale Soft Light $1.25
Too Young to Fall in Love $2
Be Quiet $1
Paper Hands $1
I Am Not Yours $1.75
Steal the Moon $1.50
Annabel $1.75
Not Today $1
Places $2
Ocean Legs $.75
Albert and the Hurricane $1.25
TOTAL: $16.50

BAND MEMBERS:
Jay Sakong: Lead Vocals, guitar, Keyboards
Jane Park: Violin, viola, keyboards, backing vocals
Seamus O’Connor: Guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Nunzio Moudatsos: Bass, backing vocals
Ryan Vargas: Percussion, backing vocals

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:

MORE USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.owelband.com/
https://www.facebook.com/owelband/

One thought on “Review: Owel – Dear Me: This is not your heart to break; you’ll break it anyway.

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