Around this time in 2009 (give or take a month), Sting released an album called If on a Winter’s Night…, a collection of very seasonal yet very somber songs that Starbucks understandably hawked as a Christmas album. Sting, in true Sting fashion, insisted it was not a Christmas album or even a holiday album, but a “winter album.” The statement pissed me off because a) I love Christmas, b) come on, and c) Sting always seems to be overly serious about this sort of thing.
With Owen’s Other People’s Songs, I finally understand what Sting meant by the term. No, Mike Kinsella’s not branding his sparse covers collection as having anything to do with the season. In fact, the unveiling of the record was about as far from Gordon Sumner as you can get, with Kinsella simply stating, “I recorded some covers of other people’s songs this year and Polyvinyl Records is releasing it on December 2nd.” Such an unceremonious announcement, not to mention the album’s too-short length of 30 minutes, make any kind of huge conceptual thesis — beyond it being a lovely collection of cover songs — unlikely.
Still, I’m calling it a winter album, even if it’s a term I once despised. Each of its eight tracks — most of them gems from punk stalwarts such as Against Me! and Smoking Popes — use solo-Kinsella’s musical tricks to convert aggression into snow-sprinkled majesty, revealing a tenderness and surreal imagery that weren’t as apparent in the original versions. Lungfish opener “Descender” gets its can-opener guitars and barked vocals replaced by unfussy plucking and synths that sound like chimes swaying in an icy wind. It becomes the sonic equivalent to a Robert Frost poem, a melody you can walk through the snow to, despite the calmer version having almost the same pace and structure as the more energetic one. Look at the runtime for proof. Owen’s take is actually 10 seconds shorter.
But the wintery nature of the album doesn’t rely solely on instrumentation. “Descender” describes a vision of an angel (granted, she’s a tragic and fairly fucked-up angel with trash in her hair and a drug problem), a figure related to Christmas even if it’s not directly related to cold weather. A heavenly being gets brought up again in Mojave 3’s “Some Kinda Angel”, with Sarah Mitchell providing appropriately pearly-gated backing vocals. Depeche Mode’s “Judas” has similar religious undertones, and the narrator of Smoking Popes’ “Under the Blanket” talks about ducking beneath that very thing as a romance falls apart, something you also tend to do when it’s freezing outside.
It bears repeating: Kinsella most likely didn’t set out to make a winter album, especially when you consider his sunny, countryfied version of The Promise Ring’s “Forget Me” and a faithful cover of Blake Babies’ “Girl in a Box”, which would be a quintessential summer jam if the lyrics weren’t so demented. But these tonal inconsistencies aren’t enough to sway my theory. I know what I’ll be listening to next time I walk home through the snow.
Essential Tracks: “Descender” (Lungfish cover), “Under the Blanket” (Smoking Popes cover)