American Football’s classic debut album recently turned 20.
What was a small but well-received response to American Football’s debut LP at the time of release back in September 1999 soon became a cult following, one spread by burning word-of-mouth love. Over the last five years or so, and especially with that ever-popular Polyvinyl re-release in 2014, as well as the band reuniting in 2014 and touring again, this record has become even more of a renowned darling for indie, emo and math-rock, for a number of reasons. It’s a record that had a HUGE influence upon many artists that came afterward: Tiny Moving Parts, Delta Sleep, Transit, Tangled Hair, This Town Needs Guns (TTNG), Really From, and many others. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if even some post-rock bands even took cues or inspiration from this record as well. Many have copied its sound and formulae, with only a few being able to match it, and with even fewer getting close to besting it.
LP1, as people now refer to it – because the idea of using other names or numbers for their titles is a foreign concept to this Illinois group – did a fantastic job of pulling together emo, indie-rock, jazz, and math-rock. Whilst taking ideas and sounds from frontman Mike Kinsella’s previous band, Joan of Arc (of which his brother, Tim, fronts), American Football went in a slightly different direction. It merged the heartfelt and emotional lyricism of emo music with intricate, time-signature and pulse shifting rhythms, whilst also carrying this lovely, easily digestible indie-rock timbre, all with wonderful picking and even some tremolo. And it also helped to better popularize that Midwestern tapping style that we hear so often nowadays in these genres. Guitarist Steve Holmes (who added in the electric piano Wurlitzer for the fittingly titled closer, ‘The One With The Wurlitzer‘) and Mike shift tunings every song and based their timings around odd musical cues, embuing the record with that tight but off-beat and angular math-rock sound that so many love.
Even with all of the odd-time rhythms, cleanly-picked guitar lines, and interesting timings, there’s still this relaxing, laid-back mood to the LP1’s sound and flow. Despite the high-level of musicianship displayed by the American trio, it’s actually quite “easy” listening; you can put it on and really chill out, letting these nine blissful songs wash over you. And I think that’s the real lasting magic of LP1; an approach and mindset that the band recaptured and nailed beautifully on this year’s third LP, especially with songs like ‘Silhouettes‘ and ‘Uncomfortably Numb.’ There’s just such a warm sense of wonder, discovery, and youth present. It sounds like you’re spending all day wandering through some small-town U.S. suburbia during a warm summer with your friends or your crush. The now seminal-opener ‘Never Meant‘, as well as ‘Honestly?,’ ‘Stay Home‘ and ‘For Sure‘ all embody this mood.
Recorded to a Tascam analog recorder, so much about this dynamic record’s creation feels so loose: stories about how the track-listing was done just mere hours before the cover art was finally finished; how the lyrics were pulled from an old journal Mike had but the other members didn’t know the lyrics because they practiced live and couldn’t hear him; how they’d work out their weird guitar timings, and so on. You can clearly tell by the process that this was their first full-length album as a band, but there’s a real authenticity there. As there was such a skill in how all of these moving pieces came together that it made for a truly one-off moment in time. It all sounds so free and… unplanned, yet the music itself, as its core, speaks otherwise. This record does a grand job of pulling you right into the calming studio space where this record was created with the band’s well-used repeating sections, dynamic instrumentals, Mike’s soft but inviting singing, and the highly detailed tones. Even with all of the jazzier harmonies and chords, it’s all quite tasteful too.
At this point in time back in ’99, bassist Nate Kinsella hadn’t yet joined the band – Mike instead tracked bass for the entire record. Drummer Steve Lamos handled all of the percussion and the band’s now-signature mourning, jazz trumpet that dots the record during various songs. When I was speaking with Steve earlier this year, he made a great point about how he approaches the drums for American Football. As a musician coming from violin and trumpet, and with playing drums, he tried to play his parts as melodically as he could back then – like single-note melodic instruments – to better match the parts of his bandmates, really deepening the lush melodic sounds of these nine tracks. Steve is clearly the jazz-lover of the trio and of this record, and his drumming reflects where the bass and guitars like to twist and turn, making up interesting, personalized and weird parts to interlock with the rest of the arrangements. He’s an integral piece in why and how this band’s moody, emo-math puzzle was and is still so good.
There’s honestly not much else I can say or add that hasn’t potentially already been said about LP1. Which speaks volumes about its quality and also its importance. 20 years after its release, American Football’s debut album still breathes with this endearing pop-punk and emo quality of youth, young love, discovery, summer’s ending; all with a great ear for jazzier, mathy songwriting ideas that put them ahead of the curve. Personally, my favourite American Football release is 2019’s LP3, but there’s no doubt about it: LP1 is the most important record of their three albums. A special, almost-landmark release for where much of emo, math and indie music would later follow. While maybe not a perfect record, it still holds up so bloody well, better than most ’90s albums, anyway.