Long after a prodigious if hit-or-miss early ‘00s, patience and collaboration continue to focus and invigorate the left field Chicago group.
Tim Kinsella and crew have reconvened Joan of Arc after a studio pause since Life Like came out in 2011 to ask a very timely question: “What the fuck?!” Rarely have they had their finger so squarely on the pulse.
In his distinctly bent way, Kinsella has dropped politics into the Joan of Arc blender before, mostly prominently on Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain in 2004. The state of the Union feels as unavoidable now in 2017 as it did back then, but, America-ish title and all, He's Got the Whole This Land Is Your Land in His Hands doesn’t assume the role of protest record. “Smooshed That Cocoon”, though, which poses that opening quandary, speaks as directly as Joan of Arc gets. “Let’s begin to fight that good fight / To not be swallowed alive / By the bottomless pit inside you,” Kinsella flatly summons. “One heroic act of passivity / Is finally gonna open that fish.” The more things change…
A Chicago institution at this point, Joan of Arc’s left field longevity was anything but a given from their outset. The group was born in the dust of the careening Cap’n Jazz, the first band driven by precocious siblings Tim and Mike Kinsella, which had become the stuff of Midwest emo folklore before the brothers were both out of their teens. Though the two continued to play together in Joan of Arc, the style of the new project swerved significantly. Joan of Arc were combining acoustic and digital elements back when it was new territory and still a bit heterodox to do in the indie rock realm.
A Portable Model Of…, their debut, turns 20 years old this June. Give or take 15 proper albums later -- or one hundred albums later, according to the press release for this one -- He's Got the Whole This Land Is Your Land in His Hands isn’t without resemblance to its distant forebears. It's evident that the most prominent consistencies between then and now would be the creative tics of the one founding core member, but it is nonetheless impressive that Kinsella’s hyperactive imagination has relented so little. His voice doesn’t hit the wild warbles like it used to, but he’s still a ways off from writing or playing it straight.
“Hello, tell me about this Chicago/Well things are looking both brighter and duller”, guitarist/singer Melina Ausikaitis observes in conversation with herself on the low gliding “Two-Toothed Troll”. Earlier on the sway-and-nod static interference jam “Full Moon and Rainbo Repair”, Kinsella curiously misspells “C-h-i-c-u-g-o” over and over as Ausikaitis coolly observes, “The biggest city in the world/The smallest town in the world/The exact middle of the earth.” A place can be as much what it feels like as what it really is.
Bolstering the hometown shout-outs is an increased sense of community embedded into the music. The recording sessions for He's Got the Whole This Land Is Your Land in His Hands took place in different kinds of public spaces in the city -- Open House Contemporary Gallery, Silent Funny arts space, the Chicago Athletic Association, and so on. Joan of Arc itself has seldom felt more like a collective. The thick low end and stoned strut rhythms built by bassist Bobby Burg and drummer Theo Katsaounis are pushed to the forefront, particularly the beat-focused middle stretch where “Cha Cha Cha Chakra”, “Grange Hex Stream” and “Two-Toothed Troll” flow from one into the next.
The spotlight is also generous to returning guitarist Jeremy Boyle and relative newcomer Ausikaitis, who takes a few turns on lead vox. The video for “This Must Be the Placenta” (long live Joan of Arc song titles) is a tacit nod to deemphasizing the leader. In it, Kinsella is the only member who doesn’t appear as himself, instead handing the job over to his brother in an in-joke for fans. There’s no mistaking this remains his ship, but from Boo Human in 2008 onward, after a prodigious if somewhat hit-or-miss early ‘00s, patience, and collaboration continue to focus and invigorate Joan of Arc.