The Beautiful Ones
You can tell they're a sister act because they're wearing matching dresses, pink tulle things that they bought secondhand for 40 bucks. It's a Thursday in northeast Minneapolis, she of the boho and working-class bars and century-old churches. And the Tin Star Sisters—also known as two of the three Anderson girls from a small dairy farm outside of Spring Valley, Wisconsin—are setting up on the tiny stage at the 331 Club. It's cubbyholed near the back of the bar, an apparent afterthought to the jukebox.
There are no amps or drums in sight. The dark-haired one, Ivy (Marvel is her married surname), is fiddling with her lone percussion instrument, a high-hat cymbal. Satisfied, she straps on her accordion, the instrument at the core of so much of this region's most original music, be it the Wallets' art-funk or the myriad polka bands of the Midwest, some of which still take up residence in Nye's Polonaise Room down the road. (Go to the river, take a left).
The light brown-haired one, Kim (Anderson—she is not married, and she and her sister wonder why any of that is germane), cradles her xylophone mallets in tattooed arms that testify "2006" as much as the rest of her get-up nods "1936." She checks the heel of one of her tap shoes. As they get ready to rock (or not-rock, as the case may be) the Sisters exchange the night's first grin, of which there will be many and many variations. This one is the grin of two siblings who have played games and music together all their lives, a grin that says, "here we go again" and "can you believe we're getting away with this?"
The accordion wheezes-lilts, the xylophone pretty-plunks. The high-hat simmers like a caged thing. Tuning up. To the casual chronicler, the Sisters do not look like any classmate in the storied rock 'n' roll high school that is Minneapolis/St. Paul, some of whose iconic photos adorn the walls of the 331. (You can find more of them a few blocks down at the Minnesota Center for Photography's "Musicapolis" exhibit.)
No. Tonight, as with most nights, the Tin Star Sisters look like a song-and-dance trapeze act.
From the '40s.
In the Catskills.
The Sisters have done the State Fair and burlesque shows, so the prospect of playing to a tough crowd of potential shruggers doesn't phase them. They make their way through their first few numbers, expertly traversing the high wire of their own making. And when Kim hops out from behind the xylophone to do a slip-n-slide tap dance near some bemused stool-sitters at the bar, the joint erupts into giddy applause. Ice, broken. Crowd, won.
But how, exactly? Plenty of campy acts have wowed 'em on cutes or charm alone. But the Sisters have songs—both their own and the covers they make their own: a screeching, heartfelt reading of Prince's "The Beautiful Ones." A herky-jerk version of Looking Glass's '60s AM radio hit "Brandy," during which Ivy magically becomes the voice of the forlorn sea wife, waiting for her man as she sings, "my life, my love, and my lady is the sea." A Ramones medley, sung in—mais, bien sur—French. A medley that could pander to karaoke culture's cheap seats with its inclusion of Bob Seger's "Night Moves" and Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire," but instead ends up a thing of weird power.
"We're really sincere," says Ivy later. "We only play songs we love. We don't really do things for kitsch."
Over the course of the 45-minute set, newbies and vets alike fall under their spell. As the clapping swells at the cusp of the last song, Kim hastily whispers something to Ivy. It's obvious to anyone who's been around the concert biz what she's saying: Yank the hook while the suckers have their mouths open; tell the crowd to belly up to the merchandise table. Ivy complies, and puts on her best huckster hat. Into the microphone she says, "Oh, yeah. We're the Tin Star Sisters. If you want, we have buttons for sale."
ne of the most reliable pop-cult signifiers of the moment is Myspace's "Top Eight Friends" feature. A glance at the Tin Star Sisters' "friends" (www.myspace.com/ivymarvel) reveals a few local musicians in the top spots, including wry country medicine-show man Mike Gunther & His Restless Souls, and Amy Buchanan, the gregarious grande dame of Cirque de Rouge burlesque. (The Sisters have performed with both of them.) But perhaps the most telling photos are those of Chico and Harpo Marx.
"We don't love the Marx Brothers because they're a family, necessarily," says Kim, nestling close to her sister in one of the 331's back booths before a recent show.
"But they do function in a way that's intertwined and supported," says Ivy. "Like, this guy starts it, but this guy finishes it. And I think that's something that's unique to families, the way they can finish each other's sentences or pick up where somebody else left off."
Kim (who is 32 years old) and Ivy (23) are the middle sisters of five siblings born to Barry and Mary Anderson. Their family farm abutted a woods that the kids would escape to at all times of the year, a beach they'd loll on during summers, and a barn where they'd build hay forts.
"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."
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.
After the set, Kim and Ivy retire to the club's backstage area and change out of their tutus into jeans and T-shirts. Ice Capaders into civilians. Wonder women into drinkers. They sidle up to the bar and order martinis. Boys flutter about. Stevie Wonder is on the jukebox. One of the newbies approaches and buys a button. And in that moment, as they both dig around in a plastic bag looking for the merch, the Tin Star Sisters look as if they have the world by the tail—or at least the sash.
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