March 03, 2003

Joan of Arc "So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness"

I never thought I'd see the day in which Joan of Arc released an album I could place on my year-end top-ten list without hesitation, for three reasons. One is that it's only March, and I don't even begin contemplating a top-ten list until December. Another is that Joan of Arc is the virtual definition of the phrase "acquired taste." Up to this point, most of their songs sounded like a grown-up Alfalfa hollering nonsensical puns atop second-tier Gastr Del Sol backdrops that steadfastly refuse to settle on a groove (or sometimes, even a key). The third reason is that Joan of Arc's first incarnation ended on a very, very bad note. Though even their best records could frustrate the average listener, their final album The Gap took pretension to its absolute limit: forty minutes of blipped out wide open space, with what few proper songs they deigned to include being short-circuited by faulty editing and excessively parenthetical song titles. Their subsequent EP, How Can Anything So Little Be Any More?, sounded like outtakes from The Gap interspersed with field recordings of a slightly pedophiliac bent. After those two blunders, Joan of Arc's breakup became more of a relief than a tragedy. This is why it is so bewildering for me to admit that their "reunion" album manages to reshuffle the deck in their favor. After all, second-tier Gastr Del Sol is still better than many of the bands we all listen to these days, and So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness is so much better than that.

This album and The Gap can be held next to each other as examples, respectively, of what musicians should and shouldn't do with computers. Whereas the latter album used digital cut-ups to either compensate for the songs' lack of structure or completely obliterate whatever structure there was to begin with (years after its release, I still can't decide which), So Much Staying Alive takes a summer's worth of jam sessions with different instrumental lineups and shapes them into comparatively cohesive songs. There are moments when you can blatantly hear this process taking place in the music. Opener "On the Bedsheet in the Breeze on the Roof" maintains the listener's interest for six minutes by unpredictably dropping instruments in and out of the mix. In the beginning of "Olivia Lost," all of the instruments seem to be playing in different time signatures; its coda accelerates the elaborately finger-picked guitar riff to triple the speed of the rest of the song. On "Diane Cool and Beautiful," the listless strumming of an acoustic guitar is used as a sort of rhythmic click track, only occasionally playing in the same key as the rest of the band. However, the songs never get annoying, and most of the credit, ironically, can go to front man Tim Kinsella. Previously content to string together references to pop culture icons and obscure French films in a strangled yelp, he actually sings on key and tells coherent stories for the majority of this album. Hell, the lyrics are even presented in paragraph form in the liner notes!

"On the Bedsheet" finds our hero drunkenly watching homemade art films at a rooftop party. "The Infinite Blessed Yes" underscores its allusions to domestic abuse by adding tense, atonal coronet solo to the song's main hook, which consists of Tim repeatedly intoning a typically oxymoronic maxim: "The problem is that you don't understand what the problem is." "Perfect Need and Perfect Completion" chronicles a couple on a road trip through West Texas. The man wants his needs to be satisfied before anyone else's, and the woman can't seem to tell whether or not her own needs are being satisfied. It's quite a Hemingway-like view of relationships, proving once and for all that Kinsella actually has literary talent beneath the surface cleverness. It also helps that the weeping pedal steel and honky-tonk piano does a good job at evoking the vast, arid Lubbock landscape without sounding overtly countrified. "Mr. Participation Billy" gets most of its mileage between the saccharine instrumentation and the sordid lyrical subject matter. When's the last time you heard an English music-hall waltz about a series of violent muggings ("Mary was choked for her bag on the stoop while her children watched")?

It suits Joan of Arc's contrary nature that its first album in which Tim actually sings well is also the first album to feature guest vocals; Todd Mattei sings lead on "Mean to March," and sounds basically like Tim after serious voice training. "Hello Goodnight Good Morning Goodbye" is a danceable kiss-off to a pretentious girl ("Camus isn't your boyfriend/you'll never go back to school") that ends with Tim babbling as if he had just received the Holy Ghost. "Dead Together" is a portrait of an elderly couple who reflect proudly on their life together during their final dying moments. The first couple of minutes of "Madelleine Laughing" meander without a tempo in sight, almost sounding like a lost cousin of The Gap's "Zelda," but midway through it morphs into a propulsive pileup of fuzz guitars and woozy vocal harmonies. The title track closes the album with nothing but Tim singing and playing his guitar with front-porch intimacy. The song is already a step up from the formless noodles that traditionally closed Joan of Arc albums, but when the tempo picks up, Tim delivers a spoken-word narrative in which a woman reminisces about two of her old teenage friends. It's so detailed and sincere that I almost feel like I'm watching an episode of The Wonder Years while listening to it.

"Staying Alive and Lovelessness" is a perfect ending to an album that finds Kinsella finally attempting to connect with, rather than confound, his audience. Joan of Arc still writes and plays as if they're allergic to 4/4 rhythms and verse/chorus structures, but the attention paid to melodic and lyrical continuity here exceeds all of the band's previous releases. The greatness of this album is definitely sufficient cause to give this band the second chance no one even knew they deserved.

---Sean Padilla

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