The Beautiful Ones

A bar act that croons Bob Seger while wearing pink tutus? Better make that a double.

"It was pretty fun," says Ivy of the Anderson spread. "The one thing I can say about growing up in the country is that there was a lot of free time. Just long afternoons where..."

"There weren't a lot of distractions," says Kim. "Except for TV."

"Yeah," laughs Ivy. "After we watched about five hours of movies or watched Purple Rain a couple times, we'd go out and embark on a little project for the day."

Ivy of the Tin Star Sisters appreciates the acoustics—if not the aroma—of her  "dressing room" at the 331 Club
Sean Smuda
Ivy of the Tin Star Sisters appreciates the acoustics—if not the aroma—of her "dressing room" at the 331 Club

Both women took piano lessons when they were kids, and hated them in turn. But seven years ago, they got serious about their music—or as serious as they get. In an effort to jump-start their career, they went to Mills Fleet Farm and bought some materials for a washtub bass, which their father helped them build.

Kim played the tub, Ivy the kazoo. They recorded a batch of covers (including "Sweet Dreams," by Roy Orbison and "Magnet and Steel" by Walter Eagan) on a Fisher-Price tape recorder they dubbed "Mobile Unit One." Then they played it back and analyzed what they liked and didn't like.

"We didn't have the means to play the things that we wanted to play the way we wanted to. [But] it didn't take a lot of training to play the kazoo," says Kim, invoking a creative tenet that guides the Sisters to this day. It's that seat-of-the-pants approach that is the most intoxicating part of the show—along with the charm of hearing harmonies that may have developed in the back seat of the family station wagon, two decades ago.

"That's why people love The Sound of Music or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," Ivy says. "We do all get along really well. We always have, although the five of us are all pretty different. We're probably the most different," she says, looking over at Kim. "Or the most alike."

"Which one is it?" says Kim.

Ivy laughs and looks up at the clock. It takes time to put on a pair of fishnets and tune up a ukulele.

Spring Valley is an hour's drive from the Twin Cities, but as has been the case for many others who made their way to the land of a million bands, the Big City may as well have been Oz.

"All our TV stations were from Minnesota," says Ivy. "I remember watching the news and at one point there was a tornado warning for the metro area. When I looked on the map on the TV, our county was included. And I was like, 'Hey! We're in the metro area! Wow!' I'd never realized I was so metropolitan."

Yet their musical sensibility has less to do with the flannel sensibility of the Uptown Bar and the 7th St. Entry than with a less celebrated side of Minneapolis. It's a history that embraces fan dancers at the old Pantages and accordion waltzes in church parking lots. And it has burbled up in the style of such attic-rockers as Tulip Sweet and Her Trail of Tears, Tetes Noires, Dutch Oven, and ZuZu's Petals.

"We wear these pink sequined tutus," says Ivy, drinking a pre-show champagne and warming to the somewhat amorphous topic of vintage fashion as a musical guidepost. "Even though we don't have much consideration for image, getting those pink tutus at a secondhand store was a big catalyst for getting our act together. They had names written in them, and they'd been used by people in the Ice Capades.

"There's this responsibility to do something with this. We've been granted this lucky thing of finding two pink sequined tutus that match us, and fit our bodies. It's tied to local history, but in this really vague way, because we don't know anything about them.

"I feel like it's a myth of our making. To get excited about something, you have to feel like there's a story there. So we sort of invent this story behind our own genesis. And we do that about everything. It's like Nye's. It's not just a bar; it's this mythic bar. It's haunted."

So is the 331, which until a year or so ago was a coarse bar with a boardinghouse on the second floor. The pensioners and disability collectors upstairs would take phone calls and pick up their mail at the bar downstairs. The new 331 Club, which is owned by salon entrepreneur Jon Oulman and operated by his son, is becoming the anchor of a new scene. Lining up down the block are the Modern Café, the Ritz Theater (home to Ballet of the Dolls), Rogue Buddha Gallery, and Artrujillo Gallery. Gallery 13 and the Minnesota Center for Photography are within stumbling distance; you could reach Creative Electric in a shopping cart if you could find someone to push you.

And at the center of this scene are the Tin Star Sisters, with their standing Thursday-night gig. (Alas, September 21 will be their last show for a while, as Ivy prepares to move to Brooklyn and Kim returns to the University of Minnesota to study landscape architecture. They'll be together again at the end of the year to play a handful of CD-release shows.) It's possible that some folks have made it through the Sisters' six-month residency without ever getting what they're about. Tonight's crowd, though, is in on the joke, or the non-joke, or whatever it is the Tin Star Sisters do.

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