The songwriting project of Nate Kinsella, Birthmark has none of that trademark “Kinsella” sound the permeates his cousins Mike and Tim’s projects. He played a supporting role in Joan of Arc, Owen and Make Believe but in 2007 he struck out on his own, scoring a friend’s film with what eventually became Birthmark songs. This is his third full-length under the name, but first for Polyvinyl.
While it doesn’t fit with what we’ve come to expect from his kin, it does still fit well tucked under the Polyvinyl's wing. Kinsella plays all the standard rock band stuff himself--y’know, guitar, bass and drums--but it’s his keys, marimba and vibraphone playing that make his stuff stand out. While not as full-on rocking as Aloha and not as poppy and twee as Architecture in Helsinki once sounded, the songs on Antibodies could be compared to both, mostly due to all the tinkering with mallet instruments. Studio musicians flesh out the album even more, handling many different wind and bowed string instruments.
“Stuck” opens the record, sounding like a lost Sufjan Stevens b-side with spacious marimba intervals and sustained clarinet and oboe harmonies. But then the synthetic kick drum and bass guitar start pounding, and chirping synths emerge as the woodwinds fade in and out. Much of the album does sound like a score, especially “You Lighten Me Up” with infinitely sustained dissonant violins, spooky cello glissandos and booming piano bass tones. “Keep ‘em Out” sounds particularly Aloha-lite, while “Please Go Ahead” gets things heavy and angry.
Lyrically, there is a big difference with this Kinsella. Much less weird and incoherent than Tim, less over dramatic than Mike. There is plenty of self-doubt though as with Mike’s long-running Owen project, from something as simple as "I get so tired of hearing my own voice" to thoughts on death. Things do get positive with “Your Imperfections,” a love song to his wife’s “perfect imperfections.” He states simply and beautifully over the more traditional drum, bass guitar and tremolo electric, "You are you, without a doubt."
Since he’s often at such a whisper, it’s the arrangements that make the record. “Shake Hands” is a highlight, drawing attention near its end with a great drum groove and his string section digitally turned backwards to great effect. Yet, he shows true skill and restraint when he dials back on closer “Big Man” to simple bass rhythms, finger-picked electric and spacey vocal harmonies. Everything finds its place, and nothing is out of place.
I haven’t said a single negative thing about Antibodies. And yet, I can’t see myself popping this record in frequently. With the exception of a couple moments, there is nothing too in-your-face about this album, and it could score a peaceful evening nicely. You could also say that it fades nicely into the background. Nevertheless, an obvious work of love from a talented, underappreciated musician.