Imagine putting several centuries of bloody history -- dead kings, ruthless mutinies, prison riots, famine, cannibalism, rape -- and encasing them in the fragile shell of a sprawling Dublin-based lo-fi band with poets scribbling out the words and a genius at the boards. That's what you get with the Joan of Arse's excellent new album Distant Hearts, A Little Closer, which ditches their lo-fi scratch for some precision sonics courtesy of Steve Albini, and which features some of the finest lyrics I've heard in some time (though I can't for the life of me figure out which band member wrote them). You'd think the band's name is intended to mock the power of history, but these guys have obviously absorbed a millennium of blood trails and laid them out in a beautifully conceived series of tunes that put arseholes, uprisings, and angst into unique perspective. The sound ranges from Dirty Three dirges to old-timey Feelies raveups. Plus you get to stare at the astounding cover art by Low's Zak Sally.
At seven songs clocking in at 45 minutes, the album is sometimes noisy, but mostly it's a dreamy, melancholy downer, stripped of self-pity but still creaking like an old boat. Steve Albini's steady hand at the boards apparently forced some discipline into the boys, because these tunes are quite a departure from the anarchy of Arse's first album Out to Sea. The opener, "The Slaves Are in the Galley, Sharpening their Oars" has the crashing chords and brave sing-speak of an old Pavement tune, creating the impression that you're about to get some hi-fi variations of the Arse's old lo-fi scratch. Although the sharpened oars of the lyrics don't exactly split your skull right away, they do detail a potent source of class (or maybe nationalist) rage: "You eat your young for your breakfast / So we laced you kids with arsenic, you've sure gone pale." It's a great start, but then the album slows up so fast you'll get whiplash.
Not exactly slo-core, not exactly dirge, the next three tunes wobble on a sagging tightrope between beauty's sky and languor's floor. Hooked by a Neil-Young style harmonica "Things Asleep in the Sun" is a tough-hearted ballad that details a fascinating character, part-asshole part-genius. I'm not sure if the subject is someone we all know (Jackson Pollock? Shane MacGowan?), but it's an enchanting portrait: "He's eating off the floor and he's playing in the dirt / With all the babies. / Evolution saw him sleeping and decided it was best / Just not to wake him." The song ends on a crescendo of sea-chantey-style singing, and before you know it the album's centerpiece, "A Spell Cast With Fingers", begins snaking it's way round your temporal lobe.
I'll be honest with you: the first time I heard "Spell Cast With Fingers", I hated it. Painfully slow, with high-pitched vocals and mandolins and violins and the overall feel of a tedious slo-core trad-piece, I just couldn't get with it. But then it never left me: now I wake up hungover with the damn thing ringing out in my heart and spleen, and it's one of the best songs of 2002 by any measure. Unlike most of our pomo stabs at tradition (cf. Will Oldham), this song doesn't cling to the shore, but actually ventures out into the open sea, and when the gale comes the tune braves it. You'll feel it when the voice abruptly turns from tenderness to menace about midway through, and when the violins and mandolins start layering themselves into anarchy.The words are an astounding evocation of the bitterness and pain in a loveless coupling: "He'd cum raw as gravel /That tore its way in to your womb. / The child clawed to stay in /Like the secret in your hand." Dark as whiskey and just as wet, I play this tune when the slow-boil of existential rage starts in. Not daily, exactly, but often enough.
Another ponderous one slips in and out at the close of Side A. "Was Christ Among Us That Night" starts out as an atmospheric piano-and-voice piece with above-average lovey-dovey lyrics ("We're at the start of a memory / That I'll hold deep in my heart"). Takes a while, but the dynamics do change and finally there's some loud bass, shredded feedback and a veritable cacophony of wonderful words with insects rushing into the house and dogs curling at their feet.
Side B is noisier and wordier. "The Bellringers Warning & Other Stories" has a nice openhearted guitar-crunch that whips through the adenoidal vocals, but the best part is the guitar pileup toward the end, a wrenching and beautiful noise blast that probably brought a twinkle to Albini's jaded eye. And oh yeah: the tune itself a wonderfully detailed story of regicide and revolution: "The last thing the disgraced king sees as the noose goes round his neck / Is a stranger walking away paying no attention to his death." This heartwarming tale leads directly into the epic-at-ten-minutes "At the Feet of St. Peter", which has the spare, rhythmic dynamics of an old Feelies track, but with some noisy and riotous guitar'n'drum raveups as the tune unspools.
Finally, we all get charmed by the beautiful closer, "Watching Films with the Sound Down". Mandolin and accordion get you all weepy as you listen to this heart-wrenching recollection of loves past: "In the working place they think I'm drinking / But the bags beneath my eyes are full of love." I'm not sure exactly what they mean when they quote Cat Stevens toward the end, but it works.
In the end you're left with a sublime, exhausted feeling, as if too many nasty tragedies and heroic uprisings have circled round your head in under an hour. In a way, it's a real achievement, and it's a relief to see a band that stays away from navel-gazing, selfish melodrama, or randomizing when they stir up their lyrics. Joan of Arse are a necessary corrective, and it's nice to see that "post-rock" has circled back to the solid ground.