[10 August 2009]
There comes a moment in a young artist’s career when they need to distinguish themselves and justify why, after churning out countless albums and years of touring, we should still pay attention to them and their prolific body of work. Sure there might be flashes of brilliance and spawns of influence ranging throughout the music world, but if there’s no cohesive identity to this person it’s possible that although talented they can still fade into obscurity. Conor Oberst almost faced this fate after semi-retiring his Bright Eyes project and experimenting with electro-pop, but the savvy musician will always learn to adjust.
Tim Kinsella, the leader and only real member of the collective known as Joan of Arc, certainly has a prolific pedigree to fall back on. His ‘90s emo-core group Cap’n Jazz were seminal in their genre and deeply influential to both the hardcore scene and the tangential screamo genre which bastardized that ethos. After Cap’n Jazz broke up, member Davey von Bohlen went on to form a little band called The Promise Ring and Kinsella settled on his Joan of Arc moniker to exhibit some promising, though at times jumbled, albums which had their share of hits and misses.
Since its beginning in 1997 Joan of Arc has released some 13 albums, a few EPs, and some 7-inches to boot. Their output, as noted, has had some success (particularly with latter releases such as Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney Mark Twain) but there is the not-so-secure feeling that you have no idea what you are getting into with a new Joan of Arc record. And I don’t mean this strictly in the sense of quality. The band is simply unpredictable, and I can’t help but wonder whether this has to do with the runaway success with not only Kinsella’s previous band but the whole emo genre and the money-making scheme which became an embarrassment to all those connected to it. The tagline on the Cap’n Jazz MySpace page says “Forget who we are” and it certainly sounds like Kinsella is still running away from his previously employed formula of music-making.
“The Garden of Cartoon Exclamations” is a litany of goofy couplets over some slightly off-kilter but repetitive piano riffs, and vocal harmonies. The song rides this lopsided piano thing and Kinsella spews some vaguely familiar sentiments. There is a brief electric guitar bridge, but the tune sits with no climax, and I’m sure this was the intention. The instrumental title track uses similar vagueness, but this time with markedly more success. “Flowers” bluesy guitar riff rides it home with a series of segues introducing all kinds of odd instruments to keep things interesting. “A Delicious Herbal Laxative” starts with a delicious power-pop riff, but in lieu of a verse-chorus-verse we get dueling guitar leads which devolve into noodling and then—it ends.
Kinsella gets on his Zen horse with “Explain Yourselves” and continues this path with “Table of Laments”. The next song “Fable of the Elements” brings in a glockenspiel to traverse down the exact same meandering road with no particular place to go. There is a lack of lyrics on the album, and more importantly a lack of theme. The songs sound like they were thrown together, however with the greatest of intentions.
Is not that there is anything inherently offensive about Flowers, or even that it is a poor album. There are actually some great moments in this jumbled incoherent mess. The problem is that Kinsella’s had ample time to convince me that his post-Cap’n Jazz stuff is somehow better, more-relevant, or even worthy of my time. He still seems to be floundering for a coherent theme which can define him as an artist. I won’t lie, when the next Joan of Arc album is released I will pick it up, and might very well enjoy it, but that doesn’t mean I’m completely sold.