You Have a Surprised Look on Your Face is How…


How You Look When You’re Falling Down

Polyvinyl Records, 2015

Review by Kent Manthie                                                      birthmark how you look cover

Nate Kinsella has finally returned with a follow-up to 2012’s Antibodies. With both plenty of time and space between Nate and his previous works in between How You Look When You’re Falling Down and Antibodies, Kinsella has fleshed together a remarkable exercise in sound structure, songwriting and instrumentation. Coming out October 16, Birthmark fans as well as fans of all things Kinsella will be treated to, what I think, is a new birth of Birthmark.

As fans of the Kinsella name, no doubt, are aware of, Chicago is the hub around which the main spokes of this clan hover: Joan of Arc, American Football, Make Believe, Owls and Owen, for example, products of his two cousins, Tim and Mike, have, probably the most renown in the Windy City, that City of Big Shoulders. Nate recently made the move from the center of the country out to our biggest megalopolis, New York City, where he has been, over the past few years, working on building a unique sound that, fulfilled on How You Look…, different from his past works; not 180 degrees, mind you, but, there is a noticeable difference from his previous work, not to mention the musicality he’s picked up from, over the years, collaborating with cousin Tim in various ways on a variety of Joan of Arc albums as well as another Tim Kinsella project, Make Believe and with other cousin, Mike, in American Football’s brief, singular career as well as Mike’s solo guise, Owen.

How You Look… has a texturized, atmosphere that is sometimes exploratory and other times forward-looking with stunning originality and creativity. He achieved this, not only by creating many of the sounds by his multi-instrumentalist self, but also with the aid of a couple NYC outfits: on all eight of the tracks, Kinsella worked with NYC Afrobeat stalwarts, Antibalas and TV on the Radio’s touring band, when it came to the horn arrangements. For the strings, Kinsella turned to the acclaimed “contemporary classical” Mivos Quartet, all which gave the album a decidedly different vibe than you might have expected from a Midwestern boy, striking out on the East Coast.

One thing that does remain on How You Look…is Kinsella’s signature sound of close-up acoustic and electronic-psychedelic devices, by his playing and recording of all the drums, bass and guitar as well as more exotica such as marimba, vibraphones as well as all the keyboards (piano, organ, synthesizers).

On the song “Sounds Can Be So Alarming”, Nate brought back some of the Polynesian/Indonesian musicality he had picked up when he and his new bride honeymooned in the paradise island of Bali, where he took some time off from the honeymooning to listen to as well as interact with the island’s Gamelan music in a live setting. He took the influences he picked up from that trip and incorporated on the aforementioned song, in the interlocking vibraphone patterns. It also shows up with his use of traditional Gamelan staples as the Javanese gong, kenong, bonang and gender that can be heard on the finale, “Body Aches and Butterflies”.

Don’t let the exotic nature of the Indonesian sounds deter you, though, How You Look When You’re Falling Down is also quite accessible, to the kind of audience who will already appreciate high-toned, intelligent and originality in their music. For example, the opening track, “Find Yourself” is one place you can hear the high-urban culture rubbing off: with those horns, especially that baritone sax, yelping out at the complementary times, the vibes roiling underneath wax on a jazzy, downtown sheen and the singing itself shows confidence oozing from someone who sounds as if they’ve really found the right home, at last. Following this opener, the title track, the second tune on here, takes the album on a bending left turn and it mellows down a tad, while still retaining an urbane magic to it; with the decidedly “un-rock-and-roll” instruments that accompany the basics of the “rock kit”: bass, drums and a guitar that stays tucked far in the background, one is mesmerized by the vibes, flute and harp, for instance, that it emits a high-society, 30s era-nightclub aura fused with the mashing-up, throwing-everything together-and-see-what-sticks vibe of today’s constant searching for sounds that, for many indie bands, many non-manufactured-by-suits bands consisting of real people who have their own brains purveyors of music that don’t want to keep rehashing the same songs that have already been done many times over, just in a variety of permutations to keep from sounding all alike.

Another interesting bit on the album comes out of “Hurry, Hurry, Hurry”, starts out with that aforementioned native Indonesian-inspired music Nate and his newlywed experienced during what must have been an exquisite honeymoon to Bali. The whole thing begins with the basso-sounds of a native-style chant, as if from a part of some “holy” ritual; custom; tribal rite done to appease local gods or deified ancestors, one beat in, the beat of the percussion emanating from a large tom-tom made from objets de utiliser which, without a local music shop to which one can get to, get made from hides, woods, vines used to tie skins taut, in place of rope (or at least a well-done facsimile of one). This, which would not be out of place in a remote area of the world, those scattered places, isolated in spots ranging from the hearts of darkest, remotest South America, Africa and on numerous atolls, isles, some not even on a map, many charted but quite unknown, but for geographically, where, for all practical purposes, the temporal realm doesn’t apply in the same way it does for most inhabitants of earth. The song, although, with that isolated, tropical, ritual musical incorporation, should not scare you away, since it has been interpolated quite well with Nate’s newfound sense of home, his self-awareness of his surroundings; all the former fit very well together and produce a nice segue into “Sounds Can Be So Alarming”, another tune which uses and fuses together a panoply of rhythms, melody-makers and harmonics. But to get back to “Hurry, Hurry, Hurry”; there’s something about the lyrics in this that show how Kinsella has adapted to his new home, with the memorable words: “I was born in a small house/In the middle of the country/Now I’m living in an even smaller house in the middle of the biggest city” – that bit of lyricizing says it all, in regards to acclimatization to Nate’s adopted town. Of course, Chicago is not exactly a small country village, but, it wouldn’t necessarily be altogether wrong to put it the way Nate put it: “…in the middle of the country”- hamlet or metropolitan hub, that is precisely where Chicago is, making that lyric a bit of even more fun wordplay; mind you, he sings about being born in a “small house, in the middle of the country”, which could lead one to the interpretation that he’s referring to being brought up on a farm or in some country hamlet, presumably in downstate, IL (or Indiana, et cetera). But those who are quite etymology-minded, the meaning could -and does-have a more ambiguous quality about it: by using the words “in the middle of the country” could just as easily have a geographically apt, literality to it as could the interpretation of it as growing up on a farm on land so flat one can see the endless acreage with nothing but corn and/or wheat for miles and miles. Either way one chooses to interpret its meaning, both would be correct in the sense cousin Nate is using them: after all, until the mid 20th century, Chicago had always been the “Second City” in the U.S.: the second largest city, after New York. But due to several factors, upstart Los Angeles eventually eclipsed Chicago in population. But, at number three, it’s still nothing to sneeze at. But, one who is familiar with the rest of Illinois knows that besides the capital of Springfield, there isn’t very much else that could be termed as urban or urbane. The exceptions to that would be places like Champaign and Urbana, two “twin cities” south of Chicago, in about the mid-state area, where a population has been built up due to its housing of the University of Illinois and its campus there.

Geography lesson aside, listening to How You Look When You’re Falling Down is a sign that he is enjoying his new city and the many wonders it has to offer. Of course, cynics would say that New York is nothing but a blighted, bursting-at-the-seams powderkeg that is overrun with crime, corruption and insufficient infrastructure maintenance. Well, I beg to differ and am of the same “I love New York” school to which Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese belong: a cinematic, visionary wonderland, bustling with fresh ideas and teeming with knowledge from the many fine institutions of learning there. Also, because of that or besides that, there has been so much great art that has been made in New York: whether it’s been “fine arts” such as painting or sculpture or literature, poetry or music: music of all types have flourished here: jazz, punk, hardcore, independent media, in general, they all have a home in New York, it’s one of the many things which make it so unique and which keep it from becoming, like so many other cities in America, gentrified and otherwise, artificially kept up.

Anyway, as for Birthmark: Nate has found a home and it’s here that I think we’ll be hearing some of his best work yet as Birthmark, in the near future. For now, take in How You Look…and enjoy the many-hued sounds of its grooves. -KM.


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