Throughout the history of indie rock, has there ever been a band as hated as Joan of Arc? Critics seem to bide their time during the year, sharpening their teeth for any sign of a Joan of Arc album. Then, with the eagerness of a kid on Christmas morning, they descend upon the promo copy in their mailbox tearing it apart with the voraciousness of a great white shark in a feeding frenzy. At the same time someone is listening to them as Jade Tree keeps putting out their records. If we’re not careful, Joan of Arc supporters and revilers may clash in some apocalyptic war of indie geeks, either that or they’ll go on exchanging rude emails. The funny thing is that I think both parties feel the way they do about Joan of Arc for roughly the same reasons. First up is JOA front man Mike Kinsella, who has a knack for coming up with song titles and lyrics that have set world records for pretentiousness. Either you think the man is incredibly clever, or you want to punch him in the face. Then there’s the fact that JOA’s compositions veer from acoustic musings to early ‘90s emo to faux-jazz to nonsensical samplings to repetitive drones in the span of five or so minutes. To some it’s art, to some it’s a mess. At their best Joan of Arc could be compared to a non-sexy Stereolab, if they came from the Midwest and grew up listening to Rites of Spring, at their worst their songs sound like lab experiments set up to determine what could drive a human to violent outbursts.
The band’s first two albums, A Portable Model of Joan of Arc (Jade Tree, 1997) and How Memory Works (Jade Tree, 1998), showed them developing a wonderfully quirky take on song writing. While Kinsella’s vocals and lyrics were best ignored, the band seemed to represent the lighter side of the Chicago math-rock scene. However, things started going downhill on Live in Chicago (Jade Tree, 1999). The band regressed into the recesses of the studio, and subjected every track to a ridiculous amount of overdubs and manipulations. The entire record sounded like an inside joke intended for the pleasure of its creators, not fans who would have to listen to it. I’m pretty sure it was at that point that the critics really began to bare their fangs for JOA. To make matters worse, their follow up Gap (Jade Tree, 2000) may be one of the most unlistenable albums in existence. The record is a nightmarish collection of overdubs, skips, rattles, and glitches that sound like someone put a microphone in a kitchen with a bunch of toddlers and then let them run rampant with the appliances. To call it an album is even a stretch; it’s more like a collection of unfinished ideas. After breaking up in 2001, they released How Can Anything So Little Be Any More, an EP made up of the remaining tracks rattling around in Kinsella’s head. If anything it proved that Joan of Arc needed to be put to bed, as they continued to vacate the world of song structure.
2003 marked the bands comeback with the full-length So Much Staying Alive & Lovelessness. Supposedly spurned by Kinsella’s desire to prove he could still “rock”, the record is a welcome return to somewhat traditional songwriting. Hardcore fans and haters need not fear; there are plenty of esoteric elements on this record to alienate your average music fan. Joined by members of Califone, Isotope 217, Ugly Cassanova, Need New Body, and the Chicago Underground Duo, the band has regained some of the focus that helped their earlier albums. “On a Bedsheet in the Breeze on the Roof” starts off with a disjointed game of chutes and ladders, elevating you with jazz before dumping them into nothingness. Kinsella’s vocals are less obnoxious than on past efforts, and his lyrics seem less weird for weirdness sake. “The Infinite Blessed Yes” follows the path of the first track, with a rhythmic coda forming the backbone of one of JOA’s better songs. The third track “Perfect Need and Perfect Completion” break up the bands foray into present day Karate territory with a folkier number built around acoustic guitar strumming. The best thing so far is that three tracks in and there are no odd samples of children, no sounds that resemble a garbage disposal gone mad, but actual songs that can be listened to over and over again. Heck “Olivia Lost”, a short piano ditty, is downright playful in a way we have not seen from JOA in some time. “Madelleine Laughing”, the second to last track, which starts with a minute of the band tuning up before melting into an incredibly strong melody reminiscent of the Sea and Cake.
The biggest difference between So Much Staying Alive & Lovelessness and the albums JOA released before breaking up, is that they seem to remember that they are playing to an audience. For a couple of years the band seem more interested in satiating their own curiosity, than giving fans something to listen to. Not that they are reverting to their Cap N’ Jazz (pre-JOA band) days or veering into Promise Ring style pop, but they are producing actual songs. I cannot stress how important that is, as freeform indie is just about the worst musical genre in existence. Rumor has it JOA are about to release a follow up to So Much Staying Alive & Lovelessness, and that it will be their equivalent of Radiohead’s Kid A. Oh well, the latest incarnation of JOA was nice, even if it’s only going to last for one album.