American Football existed for a blink of an eye, coming together in the late '90s in a small Midwestern college town out of a small but enthusiastic pool of young musicians. The band, consisting of Cap'n Jazz/Joan of Arc alumni Mike Kinsella as well as guitarist Steve Holmes and drummer Steve Lamos, played only a few live dates before devolving into a recording project and then silently disappearing altogether around 2000. Apart from a three-song EP, their self-titled 1999 album was all the trio left behind, its nine songs exploring a hushed, thoughtful take on the often more aggressive tones of the hardcore-birthed emo scene. American Football's songs dig deep into uncommon time signatures and jazz-influenced chords, and even implement understated trumpet and electric piano into their web of interlocking guitar runs and muted, softly smiling vocals. Happening concordantly with a thriving post-rock movement hubbed close by in Chicago, the band has hints of the same musical crosscurrents of Tortoise or Gastr del Sol, setting their songs apart from the flock. The airy riff in 3/4 time and Kinsella's buried, eager vocals on opening song "Never Meant" set the tone for an album of soft-spoken yet high-spirited songs not quite like any of the band's emo contemporaries. The band seemed primarily focused on instrumental composition, with fully instrumental tracks like "You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon" and "The One with the Wurlitzer" standing out and vocals sounding like a floating, distanced element on many of the tunes that include them. The lilting, mysterious tone of the album is only occasionally broken up by an upbeat rocker like "I'll See You When We're Both Not So Emotional," where the band marries its jazz-influenced chops to the same kind of wide-eyed emo pop the Promise Ring was making at the time. Kinsella would go on to release solo material as Owen, drawing on the same soft-focus melodies he employed with American Football, but the collaborative magic he found with Holmes and Lamos would never quite be recaptured in any of the three's future projects. Every song here manages to sound meticulously constructed without diminishing the easy, often dreamlike feel of the album. The record is defined by a sense of possibility and youthful discovery, and stands out not just as an anomalistic emo-jazz hybrid but as a lasting, iconic statement in the often blurry history of independent music.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas