Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain...
im Kinsella's head is abuzz with ideas. Sounds occur at random, melodies fly to and fro, working with each other as often as against. Words, phrases, sentences scroll by ceaselessly. This is a mind in a constant state of creativity, and it produces music in a constant state of flux.
Kinsella, his brothers and some teenaged friends first appeared as the short-lived proto-emo act Cap'n Jazz, with Kinsella spray-painting his abstract wordplay over deceptively simple melodic punk songs. Joan of Arc, the highly prolific successor (with much of the Cap'n's membership intact), have gradually crawled away from their punk origins to the point where those roots hardly remain, allowing the group to explore the possibilities of free jazz, experimental noise and progressive rock. Guitars are stripped clean and forced to interact on equal footing with strings, pianos, synths, even brass. Unconventional oddly-timed beats are augmented by layers of percussion to create shifting polyrhythms. The songs stagger through seemingly random arrangements, only occasionally hinting at verse-chorus-verse structure (a convention lyrically derided as "conspiracy").
Atop this foundation unsteadily rests JoA's lone constant and their least punk characteristic: Kinsella's vocals. Alternately annoying and inviting, Kinsella's artless, unaffected warbling welcomes the listener in an unassuming manner, while his unabashedly high-minded lyrics announce the presence of an artist-with-a-capital-A who doesn't mind if not everyone "gets it". Whether free-associating, sketching a character or making (very) vague political statements, Kinsella is, if nothing else, consistently provocative. He also seems to write with little concern for cadence, leaving himself stumbling over excess syllables and quixotically stuffing verbal square pegs into musical round holes when it comes time to sing.
His subject matter betrays neither limits nor pattern. On "Questioning Benjamin Franklin's Ghost" he summons the ghost of Mr. Franklin to debate personal ethics ("Benjamin insists intentions don't exist"). On "Abigail, Cops and Animals" he whispers a vignette about a waitress who gives free coffee to cops, then pauses while making change from the register drawer to ponder the role of physical currency in microeconomics. Then on "I Trust a Litter of Kittens Still Keeps the Colosseum" he seems to make surprisingly personal revelations, but it could just be another character. Elsewhere he simply draws verbal circles, deconstructing the language by recontextualizing words and using them to question their own meanings ("You cannot want to not want", "She knows all we all don't know we know", "Every face that you face may contain every face that you face"). And sometimes he just tells dumb jokes ("The Title Track of This Album" is exactly that—or is it? Hoohoohoo hahaha!) and makes corny puns ("White and Wrong"). This can be either frustrating or relieving, depending on how much you like the serious tone of the rest of his musings. "Deep Rush", for instance, consists almost exclusively of atonal electronic noise, a malfunctioning drum machine, and quoted lyrics from "Tom Sawyer". Get it? Uh, yeah Tim, but is it necessary? Well, if you laugh, then yes.
Disparate though its individual elements may seem (and they certainly are), the sum of the parts is remarkably cohesive. A surprisingly consistent worldview emerges from the wildly original sound with repeated listens, explored within an aesthetically challenging and omnivorously creative musical framework. Part of the album's appeal is its scattershot assortment of styles. It's a long album, sure, but many of the songs clock in under three minutes, so they end before they can outstay their welcome. This is the sound of a band with so many ideas they can barely contain them, ideas that appear and disappear so rapidly they can hardly keep up, let alone stick around long enough to explain themselves. Concerns are raised and quickly left behind, leaving the listener to fill in the gaps. Why, for example, does the Hancock building eclipse the moon? Why are Sid Vicious and one's mother posed the same query? Most glaringly, why Dick Cheney and Mark Twain? Is this a political statement? What's the connection? You may have to look it up to find out Twain’s criticisms of European imperialism in the late 19th century, but by the time you've finished asking the question, much less answering it, the band is already immersed in the next song.
Criticisms of Kinsella and company's short attention spans are certainly valid, but miss the point: no one can call this album boring. It is many things, and easy listening is not one of them. After all, why should music, even pop music, be easy? Must we be eternally bound by simple rhythms, hummable melodies, sing-along lyrics? You could argue that the ideas are not properly seen through to fruition and abandoned in disconcertingly rapid-fire fashion. I would reply that you are right, but that this adds to the work's appeal by offering a surfeit of material in so small a space, allowing the listener to pick and choose which moments, aspects, elements are important to his or her individual listening experience. By refuting the notion that the listener's hand must be held at all times, Joan of Arc have produced one of the more difficult and ultimately rewarding musical statements of the year.
Reviewed by: Bjorn Randolph
Reviewed on: 2004-09-08