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The best kept secret in music


Their music, a heart-wrenching breed of indie guitar-rock, isn't earth-shatteringly new; neither are their lyrics, aching wisps of heart-on-sleeve haiku, breaking new poetic ground. But Pittsburgh quartet owensring, who self-release their debut album Slow this week, are a breath of fresh air and, perhaps, one of the great hopes for those searching for the city's place on the country's rock-map: because of their attitude toward the music scene, themselves and - most of all - their music itself.

At the corner booth in Dees Cafe on the South Side, bassist Dixon Kinser, guitarist Doug Heckman, and singer (and occasional CP writer) Robert Melvin (drummer Ben Sheets is unavailable) are comfortably alternating the dead-serious business of their music with goodhearted verbal swipes at themselves and each other. The one topic which escapes teasing is Slow, the disc that, ironically, they've spent the past 13 months recording. A shuffling debut. Slow sounds experienced and time-tested: The nine songs comprising the disc are all similarly organic, mid-tempo rock, sheets of Fugazi guitars rooted in a melancholy melodic style like an updated Unforgettable Fire-era U2. Similarly, Melvins lyrics, which are sometimes self-evident ("It was seven years ago / that I turned / for she was strangely beau- tiful") and sometimes cryptic ("Are we the winged sort? / No, chiefly walkers / then walk me to the gilded heaven"), are always unwor- ried about the accusations and cynicism that abound in the unforgiving rock world.

Most strikingly, Slow just sounds excellent. While many bands' debuts are youthful efforts at simply capturing a live sound, owensring are clear that their foray into the studio was meant to complete an artistic process that songwriting begins.

"From the beginning, it was a studio idea," says Melvin. "We wanted to use what was in that room to make something, and it ended up, in a lot of cases, to be more than the sum of its parts."

Heckman, Melvin and Sheets moved to Pittsburgh in 1997 after playing together in a previous band in State College - when their original bass player declined the move, Kinser was called in. Taking the name owensring out of pure "collective indecision," according to Melvin - an Owen's ring is an obsolete aspect of bottle-making; it's nothing to do with hobbits or wizards'- the band debuted at Graffiti in early '98. From that show, through to their shows with bands such as Rock Challenge winners Mercury at Nick's Fat City, and their own Rock Challenge bid this year, owensring - decidedly indie in sound - has unconsciously ignored the seemingly rigid rock segregation in Pittsburgh.

"A lot of that comes from dumb luck," says Heckman. "We met [soundman] Geoff Jones at Graffiti and he introduced us to Ron and Jon Rinaldo at Laga, and they put us on the Juliana Theory show last year at Laga, probably our biggest show."

"We never said, here's a list of places we're going to play," says Melvin. "Especially in the last year or two, with places closing - we're not picky! Nicks [Fat City] is, maybe, not really our scene, because we're a supposed indie-rock band. But it's a good room - we'd like to build [that] scene there."

The members of owensring are all set on music, and this band in particular, as a career. While staunchly defensive of their music, unlike many indie bands they are unafraid of success: The potential commercial viability of their intricately poppy songs hasn't escaped their notice. At the same time, however, by making their first disc from a more mature point (all of owensring are around 27 years old, and three of them are married), the band also has a good perspective on the matter.

"I think we'd all love for the great label- fairy to come down and pick us up with no work," admits Melvin, "but that's not how these things happen. I hate to sound cliched. but you just have to do what bands do - send stuff out, get in the van, go to other towns. I don't know if the scene itself [in Pittsburgh] is generating enough heat right now to get signed here ..."

"... but most bands go on the road, and that's what we'll do," finishes Heckman. "With places closing down here, maybe it'll somehow be good - maybe the places open will develop more of a following, places like Roboto and such. But at this point, I don't know if we could just stay in Pittsburgh - but I don't think there's any thought about packing up and moving to New York or something."
- September 5-12, 2001

In the song "Over," owensring vocalist Bob Melvin could just as easily be waxing philosophical about history as singing about his band's attempts to penetrate the commercial rock market: "I want to live a revolution / but I can sense that fading / the world moves on to other things / and I am left here waiting." If this band is going to change things, they'll be using subtle measures rather than a violent overthrow.

Slow, the local quartet's debut CD, sits in a unique position: It has the guitar crunch that can appeal to commercial alternative radio listeners, yet its edgy dynamics and obtuse lyrics can entice college radio fans raised on introspective indie rock.

But the members of owensring are not fighting for commercial airplay or shunning it to retain underground credibility. In twist of fate that's rare for such a local band, they're appealing to both factions: getting airplay on WXDX 105.9 FM and winning over' audiences at Club Laga, which caters to indie-minded under-21 crowds.

Two songs from their album, "Eventide" and "Fade Nineteen," have received airplay on WXDX, proving tat underground bands can impact on the commercial airwaves if they try. "I think the state of radio today is so corporate," says Melvin, "that there's honor in trying to improve the quality instead of just writing it off and saying. It sucks and it'll suck forever.'" The nine songs on Slow prove why owensring leaves such an impression on an audience. Drummer Ben Sheets and bassist Dixon Kinser create a heavy back drop of pounding rhythms that work with guitarist Doug Heckman, who alternately roars and chimes. Melvin's voice practically functions as a fourth instrument, singing abstract lines that even he has trouble defining. "I think... the meaningwill be unearthed later on," Melvin says. "A lot of the record is about becoming [something], the process of learning. In that way, I think the songs might just be a snippet of a larger thing."

Currently, owensring remains independent, handling all the legwork themselves without a manager or booking agent. The approach has paid off since they've established strong, fruitful relations with other groups and clubs around town. Manifold Splendour's Emily Bourne went so far as to sing back-up on one album track- "Breathless, July" - which also fea- tures Barrett Denmon on cello.

Knowing how challenging it can be to make such connections, the band obvi- ously gets a rise out of their peers' support. "There are people in the music scene who I know are discriminating and passionate about their music," says bassist Kinser, "and the fact that they choose to come to our shows and enjoy the music is so flattering for us."
- September 5-12, 2001

"beautifully passionate vocals...definitely a must have...four stars." - Review of "slow"


NEW 3-song demo (copyright 2004)

WXDX Pittsburgh X-Files Compilation: "Fade Nineteen" (2002)

Millennium Music Conference 6 Compilation: "The Tyranny" (2002)

slow (LP)
(delicate music, copyright 2001)


Feeling a bit camera shy


On its 2001 debut album "slow," owensring took indie rock and infused it with a feeling and purpose missing from an increasingly homogenized rock scene. Through the album and an amazing, visceral live show, the band developed an extensive network of friends and fans of all musical tastes, and were consistently told the same thing: people believed in the music.
In 2004 owensring returns with its best songs to date, pouring all of the passion and transcendence of "slow" into a more accessible mold.
"The radio climate for rock bands right now is dicey," says singer Robert Melvin. "We wanted to challenge ourselves to write songs that still felt genuine to us but that would be accepted in a very singles-driven radio scene."
owensring believes the mainstream is ready for meaningful, powerful anthemic pop again. Real songs. Real, unpackaged emotion. Soaring, awe-inspiring vocals and ringing guitars. Sound familiar? Hope so.
"We're ecstatic about these new songs," Melvin says. He adds, laughing, "I think our U2 obsession has survived the songwriting shift intact. We're just aiming at The Joshua Tree now instead of The Unforgettable Fire."
Melody. Passion. Instantly memorable songs and a blistering live show to back them up. This is just the beginning.

owensring. it's time.