It's not every day that I drop everything to review a record I just received, but I have to make an exception for Make Believe, because this record has not only achieved the rare feat of overwhelming me instantly, but it also restores the reputation of one of indie-rock's most confounding personalities, Tim Kinsella. His band Joan of Arc made two really wonderful records, How Memory Works and A Portable Model Of, before he went a little...weird. Live In Chicago was pretty good, but the arty strains started to overwhelm the band. By the time of The Gap--well, let's not mention that record ever again. They broke up. It was sad.
I announced Joan of Arc's breakup in a news item for Pitchfork (click here for the sordid details) and thought it was funny how Kinsella retreated into his past and reformed Cap'n Jazz under the name of Owls. But, really, at the end of the day, Owls was nothing more than the same game under a different name; they made one excellent record, and after doing the same thing (aka mutating into a new band, this time under the name of Friend/Enemy) Kinsella reformed Joan of Arc--and released two very promising albums.
So it's no surprise, then, that Kinsella's up to his old tricks. Make Believe is the new (temporary?) name of Joan of Arc. In their press kit, they see this as a liberation--liberating from the JOA reputation, I'm sure, but Make Believe marks a clear break from their past. They say that this new band is "Owls without drug problems, Friend/Enemy with a consistent lineup and a practice schedule." They even list their seven-point plan for improvement, which reads--and I'm quoting it verbatim here:
#1 Would be a live band--all songs written as a band playing live.
#2 No-one was getting in unless they were down for the long haul--maintain a consistent lineup
#3 Practice every day--well over 40 hours a week--if they're lucky enough to get away with living outside of the dominant culture as much as they are, they would work hard to maintan and justify such a privilege.
#4 No effect pedals
#5 No over-dubs
#6 Songs would have to speak for the collective not the individual singer
#7 Sound palette limited to classic rock band lineup to force new approaches to cliched shapes
In other words, Kinsella decided to get his act together.
And how sweet it sounds!
Make Believe is tight--extremely tight--and they actually sound like a real band. Guitars are weird, sure; and the drum patterns are complex, but still, it's no stretch to say that this is the first time that they've really sound together. There's no weird jazz elements; there's no cut-and-paste going on, either--when they made that list, they weren't joking. Make Believe is together, and they're all the better for it. It was a most wonderful shock to hear the opening chords of "We're All Going To Die," because it just sounded right. The minute Kinsella opens his mouth, screaming "All the heavy metal songs are good when they sing 'Never Surrender'/And all the hip-hop hits are good when they say 'say my name," you'll feel like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son--looking down the road, you see the figure coming, and then when you recognize him, you want to run and throw your arms around him in jubilee.
What this list failed to mention is an unwritten #8, and it's the key to what makes Make Believe the best Joan of Arc record since A Portable Model Of: focus on the songwriting, concentrate on making more cohesive lyrics and a narrative style. See, for the first time in years Kinsella isn't writing really oblique lyrics, and it's quite obvious that the Kinsella of the early days isn't lost and gone and babbling incoherently in the corner. Kinsella sounds like the young poet of yore, not the drugged-out lost-cause writer who writes lyrics in a random form.
It's quite obvious that Kinsella's been wrapped up in personal reflection. All of these songs are very thoughtful and it appears he's been thinking about his place in the world. Consider the words to Make Believe's best (and perhaps most telling) track, "Temping As A Shaman," which contains a guitar riff that's reminscent of "Baba O'Riley": "Waiting in an endless line of my identical selves/Only to betray my own momentum...All these me's are just standing around tapping the me ahead of me on the shoulder to ask 'what are you here for?'/You know what your voice says about you/When you speak of taste/And say I'm sorry I'm not sorry?" Or think about "I'm just trying to make everyone happy here/It's just the devil inside me" from "Abracadabra - Thumbs!"
Oh, crap. I'm doing something I don't like to do--lyrical analysis. But when you consider that Kinsella's been lost and gone and unknown for a long long time, these kinds of signs are not to be ignored. It's not really my place to try and figure out what Kinsella's thinking about, and it shouldn't be assumed that these lyrics are how he feels about life, but...
Oh hell, I'll just say it. this is one of Tim Kinsella's best records ever.
Five songs, fifteen minutes, NO BULLSHIT.
Will it last? Who knows. Let's live in the present, let's enjoy this moment for now.
I think Tim would want that.
Label website: http://www.flameshovel.com