If you’re not from Ann Arbor, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard the name Chris Bathgate. That’s okay. There was a time when people outside of Louisiana hadn’t heard of Jeff Mangum. There was a time when people outside of Chicago hadn’t heard of Jeff Tweedy. There was a time when people outside of Louisville hadn’t heard of Will Oldham (aka Bonnie `Prince’ Billy). You get my point. Anonymity is fleeting when you have the goods, and Chris Bathgate definitely has the goods. Bathgate started making music while attending the University of Michigan, but has since played in bands there and in New York, never quite reaching the success he deserved. Now, with his third full-length release (first for Quite Scientific), it looks as though he just might get that recognition, even beyond the confines of Ann Arbor.
The first thing one notices on A Cork Tale Wake, besides Bathgate’s haunting piano melody, is his rich, full voice. Bathgate has vocal chops and he’s out to prove it. His voice has the dramatic and operatic quality of Antony, but also the genuine folky tones of Will Oldham or Damien Jurado. “The Last Parade on Ann St.,” a song that puts Bathgate on a par with any of today’s popular singer / songwriters, such as Ray LaMontagne, even has a portion that sounds like the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” “Every Wall You Own” has Bathgate’s voice being inhabited by the absent ghost of Jeff Mangum, and wonderfully so. Those who miss Neutral Milk Hotel will surely latch on to this track. “Smiles Like a Fist,” on the other hand, treats folk the way that Neil Young treats it, as just another branch of rock and roll. Electric guitars churn like some kind of ’70s arena rock superstar, but with a Dixieland trumpet in tow.
Things get stripped down again, as in the album’s opener, “Serpentine,” on “Madison House,” featuring just Bathgate on what sounds like either a small guitar or possibly a ukulele, and a friend on bass. I can’t tell at this point whether my favorite songs are the ones busy with instruments or the ones that are slower and sparser. “Cold Fusion (Snakes)” again highlights Bathgate’s smoky and beautiful voice. For those who think Devendra Banhart’s voice a little over the top, wanting it to sound more like Nick Drake, give Chris Bathgate a try. “A Flash of Light Followed By” merely supports all of these arguments, making me wonder why it’s taken this guy three albums to get noticed. I just can’t get over how amazing his voice is, not to mention his incredible musical ability.
“The Last Wine of Winter,” again finding Bathgate accompanied by a lonely trumpet, is yet another aural stunner. “Do What’s Easy” makes Damien Rice seem like some drunken Irish busker rather than an heir to the mantel of Nick Drake. Chris Bathgate now has that title, thank you very much. The album ends, sadly, as I could listen to Bathgate’s voice for hours on end, with “Coda (Ann St. Pt. 2).” Bathgate finishes as strongly as he starts, voice still incredible, music still subtly warm and engaging. Remember, there’s a time in every famous person’s life when they’re not famous. And even if Chris Bathgate doesn’t break out into superstardom like Damien Rice or David Gray, if you’re lucky enough to hear his music, you’ll know the difference.