Two summers ago, Chicago's Joan of Arc seemed to have had packed it in and called it a day. Since their first appearance in the spring of 1997, this manic foursome had laid claim to an unattended lot of land in the American independent music community. Equal parts Gastr Del Sol and the dissonant echo of Cap'n Jazz (the outfit that spawned JOA, among numerous other Midwest outfits), it was indie-rock swathed in computer music. Listeners were either confounded or converted.
Now, songwriter/vocalist Tim Kinsella has seen fit to abandon one dangerous working process in favour of another in an attempt to re-focus both his creative energies and his sense of artistic direction. He seems to have succeeded. The band, comprised of both JOA alumni (Mike Kinsella, Sam Zurick, Todd Mattei), Friend/Enemy allies and assorted all-star guests (including Rob Mazurek and Califone), is the most cohesive and coherent yet captured. Flashes of the energy and precision JOA exhibit in the live forum are, arguably for the first time, perfectly realized here. This is Joan of Arc mark II.
With So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness, Kinsella and company have put aside the non-linear construction of sound and returned their emphasis to actual songs. Recorded live in studio last summer, these songs clearly and concisely exhibit what fans of the band recognized and argued all along: the computer cut-ups and disjointed fašade of previous JOA releases wasn't the disguise for a lack of songwriting talent, but a good-natured punk-rock challenge to our conception of exactly what a song was supposed to be or sound like. SMSA&L proves that Joan of Arc is Joan of Arc regardless of whether or not a Mac with ProTools is used to compile the sounds. It proves that Kinsella's studied, literary lyrics retain their light-heartedness and multi-textural edge, regardless of their presentation. And it proves that the band is in fact a band -- one that can perform its songs without the aid of digital trickery or homemade electronics. Quite simply, it proves that Joan of Arc rock.
For some, Joan of Arc is the band you want to like but can't. You know they're questioning everything you think you know about indie-rock, but it's not enough to hold your attention (or make you care that's what their project is, for that matter). With SMSA&L, JOA may finally rid themselves of the pretension many perceived on previous efforts, and instead excel through honesty. Accessibility abounds in a manner that allows the band to retain its militaristic approach to pop while establishing a sound that offers listeners an easier point of entrance. Committed fans can rest assured, however, that the excitement of never knowing what will come next is still the order of operations with many of the tracks: those moments when JOA's glorious noise sprints forward into a conventional and captivating melodic passage, then challenges our own appreciation of that simple sound with the carefully constructed racket of dissonance and counter-intuitive time signatures. Those searching for contemporaries to this sound need not search very far, however, as elements of Tortoise's postmodern über-cool and Will Oldham's fractured folk aesthetic are very much present.
Kinsella's lyrics, meanwhile, come alive with repeated listens, each syllable and sentence taking on a particular or peculiar meaning as familiarity with the album leads to fascination. There is a sheer, stunning joy in recognizing the duality of a favorite lyric after another has shifted and skewed its significance. In "Diane Cool and Beautiful", Kinsella subtly draws the portrait of an individual who could be said to typify people who misunderstand the simplicity of JOA's recorded work (and whose absence within the flock of fans will continue to go unnoticed): "And if she's ever known music as any more than only songs she's yet to let me in on it." And in "Staying Alive and Lovelessness", Kinsella succinctly articulates the reaction this brilliant release will surely receive from both sides of the head-scratching crowd of over-intellectualizing, pseudo-academic indie-punters: "Either I just stopped understanding you or I'm just beginning to."
Is it the beginning or the end of this resurrected gang? Let's hope it's just the beginning again...