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I initially planned to begin this review by saying that you’ll want to burn a copy of Joan of Arc’s So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness—at the stake. Yes, the Chicago band whose deconstructionist impulses and emo-country-jazz leanings have given new meaning to the word “pretentious” is back, so gather up some kindling, boys and girls, because we’re gonna have us an auto-da-fe!
But upon repeated listening, I put down my lighter fluid, because it suddenly occurred to me that any band whose lyrics include the phrase “Camus isn’t your boyfriend” repeated over and over again (from “Hello Goodnight Good Morning Goodbye”) must have something going for it—namely, a sense of humor. (As for the possibility that Joan of Arc doesn’t intend this as a laugh line, well, it’s simply too unnerving to even contemplate.) More important, I came to understand that, buried within Joan of Arc’s tortuous—or should I say torturous—arrangements are moments of real beauty.
Joan of Arc stalwart and sole steady member Tim Kinsella (guitar, vocals), joined this time around by brother Mike Kinsella (drums, bass)—like Tim, formerly of Cap’n Jazz—Graeme Gibson (keyboards), Sam Zurick (guitar), and Ben Massarella (percussion), along with numerous guests, has packed the band’s sixth release with 11 sometimes annoying, sometimes dazzling (and I’m talking within the same song) slabs of indie-folk prog. The monstrous offspring of an unholy union among Built to Spill and Rainer Maria, with a little Wake of the Flood-era Grateful Dead thrown in just for the hell of it, Joan of Arc doesn’t make songs so much as it makes mazes, and your enjoyment of said songs is likely to be directly proportionate to your willingness to follow the band members into and out of the compositional cul-de-sacs they delight in working themselves into.
That said, a few of the tunes on So Much Staying Alive induce a feeling almost akin to pleasure. My personal favorite is “Mr. Participation Billy,” a pretty and shockingly straightforward (for Joan of Arc, anyway) little ditty that evokes Transformer-era Lou Reed with its simple melody, plaintive vocal, and deadpan evocation of ultraviolence (“David had no money for a cab/So he got his pelvis smashed with a baseball bat instead…Paul got a hundred and fifty stitches/When he got his face caved in with a brick”).
I also have a soft spot in my heart for “Mean to March,” which begins inauspiciously enough, with some annoying guitar noodling, before morphing into a hypnotic, albeit occasionally herky-jerky, piece of spazz jazz. One guitar figure weaves in and out of another amid spacey vocals and the occasional flurry of piano notes to produce a sound that can be honestly called jazz-rock without—as is generally the case—shaming both camps.
With its discordant chords, choppy repetition, and maddening chorus (same as the title), “Hello Goodnight Good Morning Goodbye” actually drew my wild-eyed wife from the other room to sputter, “Promise me—promise!—that you’ll say mean things about these people.” My pleasure, darling, although the horrible truth is, “Hello Goodnight etc.” has grown on me. With its twin guitars, of which one repeats a riff and the second seems solely designed to rattle your nerves, the song comes perilously close to sounding like a U.S. Maple song—which is to say I kind of like it. Too bad Kinsella’s normal-guy vocals are so…well…not execrable; had the band brought in U.S.M.’s spastic Al Johnson, it might have whipped itself up a bona fide masterpiece.
Like “Mr. Participation Billy,” album-closer “Staying Alive and Lovelessness” eschews sinuousness for simplicity; indeed, with its stripped-down acoustic guitar and down-home vocals, it could almost pass for something off the Dead’s American Beauty. Why, it’s downright purty, is what it is—as if the fellows almost forgot for a moment how desperately they seem to want to be disliked. At the end it segues into a Sonic Youth-meets-James Dean spoken-word thing—some inscrutability about green apples and teenage drag-race casualties—over a strummed acoustic guitar.
Unfortunately, So Much Staying Alive’s remaining songs aren’t as down-to-earth. Joan of Arc’s avant-garde leanings are disconcertingly obvious on “The Infinite Blessed Yes,” which features lots of jazzy guitar chords, smooth (for a change) harmony singing, and some generic Miles Davis-style muted-trumpet waffling—and ought to appeal to the kind of people who think rock ‘n’ roll belongs in the hands of people who went to Berklee to study music theory and grow horn-rims. Similarly, “Diane Cool and Beautiful” is an annoying ride down Jazzbo Lane, not to mention a waste of some lickety-split fuzz bass. Featuring lots of pseudo-scat unison singing set over Camper Van Beethoven-style violins, “Diane” never fails to send the needle of my Fop-O-Meter into the red zone. “We drove around and around,” sings Kinsella, “just looking at the big houses.” Yeah, I guess they did. But if you’re smart, you’ll ask them to drop you off at the nearest bar.
All too often, the band’s proggish impulse to write single songs that are actually two or three songs unhappily joined at the hip ends in tragedy. Such is the case with “Madelleine Laughing,” Part 1 of which is a gormless (and largely formless) exercise in minimalism, featuring as it does Kinsella’s wandering and halting vocals backed by percussion and the occasional flurry of guitar wanking. By the time the band gets around to Part 2—an almost pretty salute to a girl who seems to view love as a kind of performance art (“For Madelleine’s performances/I could’ve been anyone/And now I know that anonymity/Was all that I thought love was”)—you’re likely to have decided that these guys don’t need a producer so much as a surgeon.
But “Madelleine Laughing” is musical meat and potatoes when set next to “Olivia Lost.” The song begins with a repeated piano figure that evokes some beginning piano student showing off his “chops,” over which Kinsella natters on about “some people.” Then it shape-shifts into a likable Up on the Sun-era Meat Puppets space jam, with Kinsella repeating “half asleep” over some goofy piano runs and lots of out-of-kilter guitar hoodoo. Typically, the boys can’t resist throwing in a lot of complex Leo Kottke-esque guitar noodling, too.
In the end, though I may not particularly care for the results, there’s something admirable about Joan of Arc’s iconoclastic, tail-chasing aesthetic. Certainly the band has set itself a tough row to hoe. Too fey for the noise folks, too weird for the emo people, too snotty-jazzy for the Smog and Bonnie “Prince” Billy freaks, too folky for the Tortoise/Sea and Cake crowd, Joan of Arc is on a lonely quest, challenging expectations, pleasing almost nobody, making strange sounds to fall through the cracks by. If So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness is unlikely—pardon the pun—to set you on fire, it’s proof positive that rock still harbors its fair share of heretics. CP