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Anybody who combines the powerful spells of love and fandom eventually worries about mistaking one for the other. Take Brian Tighe and Allison LaBonne, who sing in the Minneapolis pop band the Owls. They met at a party in the early '90s, where both showed up wearing blue baseball caps. She was a fan of the Hang Ups, though she didn't know Tighe sang with them. Later, when he played saxophone in the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group, LaBonne played bass, and their tenures overlapped just long enough for them to tour Japan together. By then they were in love.
But it wasn't until a few years ago that LaBonne finally got up the courage to play Tighe one of her own songs.
"It was really nerve-racking," she says now. "I've always been into music, and I had a guitar and little songs and stuff. But I think I just admired what he was doing so much that I thought, well, he's a musician, I'm going to be a writer. Finally I just busted out of that a little bit. I think it was a big step in our relationship."
LaBonne and Tighe, who married soon after that, are sitting at the Glockenspiel in St. Paul, around the corner from the shotgun carriage house where the Owls and the Hang Ups share a practice space. The other two Owls, singer Maria May and drummer John Jerry (of the Ashtray Hearts) smile at this story as they sip drinks served by the bartender, guitarist-about-town Dave Boquist (of Son Volt). In a way, the breakthrough LaBonne describes is the reason they're there.
I'm here because I saw the Owls perform at a basement party in 2000, their second gig, and came away convinced they were better than either of their related bands, both of whom are among my all-time favorites. With former Hang Up Steve Ittner joining on vocals, the four unschooled singers barely played their acoustic instruments, switched them constantly (as if to emphasize presence over skill), and still seemed carried away by chords, texture, lyrics, harmony, and the thrill of only just starting out.
Here was the music I had hoped was brewing somewhere in secret, years after fame had given up on regional indie bands. And I wondered: If the Velvet Underground were so damn influential, why aren't there more amateurs as good as the Owls? Maybe because quiet-loud-quiet never really figured out the quiet-quiet-quiet beauty of "I'm Sticking with You." Or maybe because no band has produced a Moe Tucker as striking as LaBonne, the obvious heart of the group. Awkward and thin, she summons a grownup-child voice so diffident and resolute that every word feels coldly final.
The Owls play like performance is an afterthought. My worry, and I tell LaBonne this, is that practice will unmake perfect--that the band will eventually get "too good."
"That hasn't happened," she deadpans, and the others laugh.
The Owls' tentativeness is missing from their new debut CD, Our Hopes and Dreams (Magic Marker Records). But this album is still better than the one I believed Yo La Tengo had made back when I thought they wrote all the songs on Fakebook, their cover compilation. The Owls' pleasance grows darker in the clear relief of production. Maria May, who in person looks as if she's stepped out of a Renoir painting, sings rock-star lovely, but with fangs, lending her hesitant vibrato to the simplest and most devastating breakup rhyme ever written: "There/Is only air/Where/I used to care."
Tighe is the halo ringing the others in, a generous arranger who can sing as high as the women. Like them, he plays piano, bass, percussion, and guitar, but also wind instruments. The band's commitment to prettiness is unabashed. And they're committed to each other, too. Cozy isn't quite the word: Their domestic democracy makes Yo La Tengo look like a green-card fraud.
"This collaboration has taken place between the three of us as friends for a long time," explains May. "It was just a formality to make things come together in a more public way."
Tighe knew May before he met LaBonne; they were introduced through a friend in Milwaukee while on spring break in 1987. The two played Beatles songs and R.E.M.'s "Driver 8" together, went to see Hüsker Dü, and briefly dated. (She ended up singing on three Hang Ups albums.) Years later, after LaBonne and Tighe married, the Owls debuted as a duo in the 7th St. Entry and May joined the couple onstage for a few songs, her young daughter clinging to her leg.
"Phoebe was a reluctant band member," laughs Tighe.
The Owls coaxed Steve Ittner into the fold for a while, but he was already on his way out of the Hang Ups, busy with his own art and music, and he eventually left both bands on friendly terms. His only song on Our Hopes and Dreams, the mournful "Even Now," reminds me why he's missed.
The Owls are playing out more now: There might be a career here yet. But their unhurried pace in life seems to have informed a continuing fascination with the idyllic, a watchfulness that seems at once childlike and hard. Before their set at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune this summer, with drummer John Jerry on brushes, they projected the river scene from Night of the Hunter onto a screen, taking advantage of the venue's cavernous atmosphere. The film's allegory of evil and innocence seemed a perfect match for the group's lullabies of doom. So long impugned with wisdom and environmental consciousness, the band's namesake is, after all, nothing more than a predator who sees in the dark.