Journey to the Center of America

Tim Kinsella

Tim Kinsella Sings the Songs of Marvin Tate by LeRoy Bach Featuring Angel Olsen

Joyful Noise Records

Review by Kent Manthie

Marvin Tate. What can I say about this guy? A lot, as it turns out. For one thing, he has a somewhat childlike aura about him – and I mean that in the most complimentary of ways- that helps keep the sharks at bay.  It isn’t surprising then, that he does enjoy being around kids, taking in their as-yet-unsullied innocence, the pure spirit about them that can’t help but be sincere, something he absorbs into his persona and, like a muse, they provide treasure troves of idioms, phrases – pure poetics.  Marvin Tate doesn’t put flashing, neon lights around his genius; he has a way of being subtle, sometimes hiding behind his youthful vigor, which helps masks a benign madness necessary to the best of poets; also, by doing things this way he doesn’t sink into a depressing self-loathing, so common from eclectic genius poets and writers past:  such lost souls such as Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, who, although is hated or at least was abhorred by many contemporaries for caving into the crushing, maniacal political pressure that he was not alone in enduring, but unfortunately, having nearly lost his mind during this senseless time of witches and goblins who were hunted down with hardcore tenacity by you-know-who in the 50s or the wonderful, influential poetry of Wallace Stevens, who never experienced that surreal literary world completely divorced from his day job as an insurance salesman.  His company of young ones helps enable him to see the world through innocent eyes and even the funny sort of spontaneous emission of words and thoughts that kids are wont to come out with make for a great inspiration and it keeps him steady, always in rare form, an eternal blaze of creativity that doesn’t fizzle out, partly due to the nonjudgmentality and unconditional love his friends, both young and old, have for him.

That’s only part of the story, though. Tate has an innate sense of the poetic and seems to be raised on symbols, metaphors and eternal optimism.  A lot of his poetry is an abstract expressionism at times; others seem to be layered with undiscovered meaning and hidden hitherto interpreted but, for the most part, they’re not.  Those that do involve symbols or the use of metaphor are not hard to “get to”.  Tate’s poems are not devoid of meter or form, they have a soft-spoken cadence, an understated rhythm to them, except when they don’t – at times a poem can unleash something bottled up, a certain emotion that finds its catharsis through this expression.  But for the most part I enjoy reading them aloud, or in the case of this CD, listening to them as they are put into a musical shape.  A lot of the work has an extralucidity that, when you read, takes you into a cloud-like para-dormir state.

The Site of Big Shoulders or contains poem after poem by Tate. There are some quite humorous and well-written works on this site.

He’s also got his own Facebook page on which you can “friend” him and get to know him; one of the benefits of Facebook – the equality of users:  there’s no “VIP” room that “celeb-hipsters” can hide in and be with their own kind.  The social milieu of FB allows interaction between some of the most interesting people and now and then you can find yourself involved in a seemingly endless thread of conversation that goes on and on, with myriad “friends” all chiming in on the subject at hand.

As to the album under review, Tim Kinsella Sings the Songs of Marvin Tate by Leroy Bach Featuring Angel Olsen, it’s actually the third in a series of albums on which Tate collaborated with LeRoy Bach, former Wilco member. The way the collaboration worked was that Tate provided the words and the melodies, while Bach wrote the music and produced. The first two albums were just collaborations between Tate and Bach, but in the midst of this project, Bach saw the immense possibilities inherent in the uniquely rich material; it had room for many possibilities and interpretations and somehow Bach came up with the idea of recruiting another Chicago-based legend (Tate’s a Chicagoan), Tim Kinsella, the front-man of Joan of Arc, its forerunner, Cap’n Jazz, “side projects” Owls, Friend/Enemy, Make Believe, etc. So Tim came on board for this third and final album in the trilogy as a sort of interpreter of the words in the form of singer. He acted, in a sense, as a “narrator”, one who could bring the words to life. Another singer that was recruited for Tim Kinsella Sings… was Angel Olsen (courtesy of Jagjaguwar Records). Angel was taken with the project right away, so the trio were off and running, recording over a series of afternoons, using Bach’s home studio in Humboldt Park to put in the instrumentation and David Vandervelde helped too, with mixing and mastering duties.

Anyone familiar with Tate’s poetry would recognize all the somewhat disjointed, complex sets of words; disjointed, maybe, but not in disarray. LeRoy Bach, whose musical arrangements were just right for Tim’s great range of vocalization – the quiet, meditation, the plaintive wails, the helpless screams, all delivered in a perfect sense of sympathy and the kind of agony you can almost feel.

Another vocalist who showed up was the solo performer Angel Olsen, who complements Tim’s lead vocal with her light, breathy voice. In some tunes, she serves as a foil to Tim’s tantrums, in others, the two are equals, singing in harmony, wonderfully, surprisingly beautiful lyrics that juxtapose the deep, dark chasms of depravity, violence and the banality of evil.

My favorite track here definitely has to be “Idolize”. It’s only 1:38. but I love it’s brutal honesty and forthrightness, not to mention the fact that it’s very catchy and Tim is the perfect one to sing it. The lyrics are of a person who, despite a lack of reciprocation or almost noticeabiTim Kinsella and Marvin Tate CDlity, is enamored with one who is guilty of all kinds of personal grievances that, nonetheless, don’t push the singer – or lyric writer – away. “Devonte’s In a Coma” is a poignant song. Upbeat, with that back and forth between the two singers – Kinsella and Olsen – it, merrily, tells the tale of a brutal attack on a child who ends up in a coma. They go on to sing about press conferences by the mayor and police, in vain, canvassing the neighborhood where this happened, only to find that no one wants to be a “snitch”. A very arresting song. “The Baseball Player’s Wife” is also an interesting work – a tale of the trophy-wife of some rich, vacuous, ballplayer who wants nothing, it seems, more than to look good on the outside. Then there’s “This Time (Not the Next Time)”, a non-Tennessee-country song, in which the protagonist is listing what he will do for the object of his love – but almost as an ultimatum – (“This Time/Not the next time/But this time”) or when he sings “This time, there’ll be no more me-me-me/This time/Not the next time/But this time”. The same country-ish vibe comes through in the next song “100 Kinds of Crazy”, the “country” vein in these tunes, more of a Midwest bluesy-country hybrid, that one can pin on Bach and his band Wilco, who are known for that genre. Then there’s “Snowglobes”, a reference to Tate’s obsessive hobby of making those little rounded glass figurines that are filled with liquid inside as well as a white, powdery, waterproof substance which, when shaken up, gives the look of snow falling on whatever miniature stage Tate has made.

A really beautiful song on the album is “Sidetracked in Miami”. It’s Angel Olsen’s moment to shine. She sings the song solo, sings it in an atmospheric dreamy voice that is stunning. Her voice has a beautiful charm that one can’t help but stop and listen to. It evokes images of a velvety night club, where the mood is subdued, the patrons are quiet or talking quietly amongst themselves and this heavenly song wafts over them.

The album closes with, first, a 32-second, instrumental, almost funereal “God Ain’t Ready For You” and then, the closer, “Never Finished Counting”.

When it’s over, you’re almost left in a daze, trying to recount just what it was you experienced just then. Of course, what that does is prod you into listening to it again (and again, and again), until you can feel the darkness underneath the juxtaposed light. Tim Kinsella Sings the songs of Marvin Tate… is a real departure for Tim Kinsella and that is precisely what he tries to do when doing a non-Joan of Arc project. His reasoning, of course, which is perfectly sensible, is, why bother making an album under a different name if you’re only going to do another Joan of Arc album? Of course, that’s not to say he’s failed in the past, because albums like 10 Songs by Friend/Enemy, Owls and Of Course by Make Believe, for example, have their own qualities and catchiness to them that can take you away from the, sometimes, wildly experimental, but always satisfying work of a Joan of Arc CD. Whichever Tim Kinsella band/project you enjoy best, …The Songs of Marvin Tate… will put his oeuvre in a whole new light and you’ll appreciate, say, the first Owls album in 13 years, Owls II, which will be out in March, that much more.

But the real star of this (as well as the other two albums which were just Tate and Bach) is Marvin Tate, who gets to have some of his poetry set to music. It’s a fine job of melding the two together. Tate is a genius of poetry and, well, whether he’s “unsung” because he likes it that way or for whatever reason, Tim Kinsella Sings the Songs of Marvin Tate by LeRoy Bach Featuring Angel Olsen is a showcase that can, one hopes, bring Tate’s beautiful words to more people. I would never be one to tell him or anyone to try and get “corporate support” because that always ruins the spontaneous madness and the honest innocence that radiates from his words. He isn’t hiding out or perched on a mountaintop. One can easily find him via Facebook. If you do connect with Tate, ask him about his snowglobes; I, for one, would love to get one for myself! -KM.


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