September 14, 2004

Joan of Arc "joan of arc, dick cheney, mark twain..."

Chicago avant-emo pariahs Joan of Arc are no strangers to puzzling
album titles. Who else would call an album Live in Chicago, 1999 and demand that “live” be pronounced like the verb instead of the adjective? Who else would release a mini-album of outtakes from their most reviled album (2000’s The Gap) and have the balls to call it How Can Anything So Little Be Any More? Last year’s In Rape Fantasy and Terror Sex We Trust is still a strong contender for Most Inappropriate Album Title Ever. This year’s Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain… continues the tradition. It would strike many as arrogant and pretentious
for a band to lump itself with men of such importance. Then again,
this band IS named after a woman who believed she was sent by God to drive the English out of France. JOA’s music has always been full of arrogance and pretension, which is why they remain so polarizing. It’s why Pitchfork will never give one of their records even a 6.0 rating. On the other hand, very few bands make it to their seventh album (and develop a strong, growing fanbase while doing so) without doing SOMETHING right. Just as one can
make a case for Dick Cheney being either a political genius or the sidekick of the Antichrist, for Mark Twain being either an incisive social satirist or a racist in disguise, or for Joan of Arc the woman being either a fearless warrior or a lunatic, JOA the band can be portrayed as either underground rock’s most gifted pranksters or its biggest naked emperor. Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain… makes a stronger case for JOA being the former than either of the band’s 2003 albums, both of which were already considered “returns to form” in many circles.

Although Cheney is namedropped in the album’s title, don’t expect much sociopolitical commentary once you pop the CD in your player. Album closer “The Cash in and Price” consists of four voices reading off a list of similarly influential and polarizing names (ranging from Jesus to Muhammad Ali to even Nation of Ulysses). One by one, the voices change tack and start repeating the words “Clear Channel” over and over until the song ends. The track seems to be the band’s way of illustrating how corporations are slowly rubbing out all traces of individuality from our culture. However, this is not a point that anyone was waiting for a JOA record to make. Nonetheless, it’s as close as the band comes on the album to directly addressing contemporary issues. On “’80s Dance Parties Most of All,” the band’s clumsy yet charming attempt at calypso, front man Tim Kinsella rattles off another list, this time of things that he considers to be “conspiracies.” Dollar bills, global positioning satellite systems, Christianity and the greenhouse effect are all named, but so are romantic comedies, interstate rest stops, and Friendster. Kinsella isn’t exactly issuing a call to arms here. More often than not, Kinsella’s distrust of the government is used merely as a backdrop for the ongoing existential crises that he rants about in every other JOA record.

The first words of opener “Questioning Benjamin Franklin’s Ghost” sum up the whole record: “I’ve materialized into this worded world a metaphysical skeptic.” Kinsella feels out of place in a world that emphasizes results over potential, a world in which everything must fit into a certain order and make money. “Apocalypse Politics“ is an acoustic ballad in which Kinsella ponders the disadvantages of being a “people person.” “I meet so many people that I gave up on names,” he sings, “but that‘s okay ‘cause I just call everyone ‘man‘ anyway.” “White and Wrong” ponders the duality of human nature---our inability to completely suppress the evil OR the good inside of us. “I like the folks with devil horns or folded palms,“ Kinsella
sings, “and most people have both…but they only acknowledge one or the other.“ “A Half-Deaf Girl Named Echo” is a paean to the joys of being oblivious to one’s surroundings. “I Trust a Litter of Kittens Keeps the Coliseum” is a narrative from the point of view of a grandfather who has lost touch with both his family and his youth. On “Queasy Lynn,” Kinsella can’t decide whether he should envy or mock people who have faith in intangible things. “Fleshy Jeffrey” finds Kinsella paying tribute to a faithless outcast stuck in a town full of religious zealots.

“Lynn” and “Jeffrey” are similar both thematically and sonically, as
neither of them would sound out of place amongst the baroque pop of 2003’s So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness. On many of the songs, strings and keys get as much of the spotlight as guitars and drums. “Franklin’s Ghost” is a piano-based romp that runs Ben Folds through a Captain Beefheart filter as it segues from choppy, tumbling verses to insistent, catchy choruses. “Onomatopoepic [sic] Animal Faces” and “The Details of the Bomb” are tense Scott Walker-style ballads consisting of little more than Tim’s voice and a
forlorn piano. The chiming vibraphones and funky drum machines of
“Gripped by the Lips” make the song sound like an outtake from Tortoise’s Standards. Other songs lean closer to the darker material of In Rape Fantasy.... The hissed whispers and grinding rhythms of “Abigail, Cops and Animals” are reminiscent of early US Maple (thanks, Jonathan Pfeffer, for pointing this out to me). “Half-Deaf Girl” boasts a powerful double-drum attack that is normally reserved for the band’s live shows. “I Trust a Litter of Kittens” uses backwards percussion, bleating horns and unearthly vocal harmonies to reach a frightening climax.

Every couple of tracks, JOA inserts a brief interlude in which Tim
engages in the same kind of computer-based cutups that made The Gap such an irritating listening experience. This time around, though, Tim keeps his experiments brief and doesn’t let them get in the way of the actual songs. Because of this restraint, sound collages like “The Title Track of This Album” and “Deep Rush” serve as palate cleansers that tie the rest of the album together nicely. This sense of balance is what makes Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain… the band’s best album yet. It’s as if they’ve taken every facet of their sound---the baroque pop of So Much Staying Alive, the gothic sound collage of In Rape Fantasy, the glitched-out ambience of The Gap---and put them all on one record in easily digestible proportions. Don’t get me wrong: Joan of Arc is still an acquired taste. Tim still hasn’t quite learned how to sing in tune (though he‘s in better voice than he‘s ever been), and his lyrics can still suck outright (props to anyone who can tell me what “Onomatopoepic Animal Faces” is about). However, its bottomless supply of creative arrangements and quotable lyrics ensures that JOA fans will listen to it long after the end of the Bush administration.

--Sean Padilla

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