I suppose it would be unfair to suggest that I'm Splendid's resident
Joan of Arc booster, but I can't help but feel a little bit proud of the fact that I've had my grubby paws
on the last few
JOA releases. At the very least, it suggests that ol' man Zahora has faith in me when it comes to dealing with one of America's most famously difficult indie-rock outfits.
Equal parts autobiography and academia, Tim Kinsella's songwriting -- perhaps unintentionally -- has come to stand as the shining example of indie-rock snobbery. The reality, however, is quite different. In an age when success means figuring out a formula quicker than the competition en route to robbing the MTV2 crowd blind (hello Victory, are you out there?), Kinsella and company -- Joan of Arc membership has again swelled, and occasionally cracks a dozen, though the core band now consists of Kinsella, cousin Nate, Sam Zurick and Bobby Burg -- challenge themselves, challenge their listeners and refuse to let the targets on their backs get them down.
Ingenuity and uniqueness aside, there are a few staples of the JOA experience -- specifically Kinsella's dexterous wordplay and an often schizophrenic approach to unifying rhythm and melody. The low bass blast of "Questioning Benjamin Franklin's Ghost" is as funky as anything JOA has ever attempted, but it begins with and regularly returns to a tiny esoteric segment built upon a piano figure and some syrupy strings, concluding with a gorgeous melody on vibes. Kinsella sings, "DC streets make a neat pentagram / And every dollar bill brags God's behind the plan / Who am I to have any idea of who I am"; it's the first of many statements addressing the conflict of the personal and political that informs all of the album's material.
The range of instrumentation across Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain... is stunning and certainly the most adventurous JOA have ever dared to employ. "Gripped By The Lips" is the most accomplished track by conventional standards, its complex arrangement incorporating viola, cello, e-bow guitar, Wurlitzer, vibes, organ and programming that beats Tortoise at their own game. The result is a deceptively complex cycle that is broken only by an abbreviated electric guitar breakdown, which eats itself up before returning to the cyclical groove that serves as the album's centerpiece. Song titles like "Apocalypse Politics" betray the introspective and downright pretty acoustic guitar piece hidden inside, a closer partner to brother Mike Kinsella's Owen alias than a raving mad doomsdayer. "White and Wrong" is damn near the most Joan of Arc-ish tune of the lot, ably touching on the sounds of all of JOA's varied incarnations, and certainly still able to convince me that Kinsella is a genius with sarcastic asides ("Someone tell the small towns / the sky's the same size everywhere") and philosophical queries ("You cannot want to not want").
In the past, our own writers have both spotted the intertextual references and quotations and missed the point entirely, so it's hard to share in the delight of experiencing something so obscure as an audio excerpt from Leslie Thornton's experimental short film Peggy and Fred Get Killed (1984) when it's assumed to be a sound bite from a ranting toddler. The primary outside references upon which Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain... is built, however, are obvious enough that the myriad nods to literati will go largely undetected and shouldn't frustrate and confound us needlessly. New label? Yes. New direction? Not necessarily. New lease on life? Almost certainly; Kinsella and his crew finally seem to have found a way of expressing themselves that doesn't feel introverted and exclusive, but they still refuse to muck about with the faded "emo" histrionics that once briefly defined their sound.