Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain...

(Polyvinyl; 2004)

By Dom Sinacola | 7 November 2007

Simplicitonic drinks my morning mawing hybrid / It eats eggs and bacon marinade / My marmalade.

How does that look? It’s pretty creative, I think, in its backwards mundanity. Say it out loud: the words bob and weave through vitriolic consonants while rubbing up against long, seductive assonance; here, alliteration is key, and I would know, because I wrote this lyrical snippet. It’s no William Faulkner, no rustic microcosm of this greater hell-drenched earth of ours; no James Joyce. It does rhyme though. Plus, it really says something about the morning, about all of our beginnings, about our diets and our bodies. I say it’s good, but then again, I’m no wordsmith like Tim Kinsella…

And this is a good thing. Yes, I know those lines are horrible. Maybe, in a better context, that pompous wankery could make sense, but here, ultimately, it says nothing, it does nothing, and it’s crap.

In the same vein, Joan of Arc, Chicago’s own noise rock outfit and Sea and Cake/Tortoise protégés (ooh, the album’s mixed by John McEntire!), have released the solipsistic “concept” album, Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain…. It is a piece with enough good ideas to fill a low level political theory course, but one that inevitably falls leagues short of any poignant contemporary commentary. Yet, Tim Kinsella’s words and monotonous pre-falsetto could be tolerable if the music complimented his ideas with well-timed dynamics. In “Queasy Lynn,” Kinsella sings, “She knows all we all don’t know we know.” As such, the words don’t resonate much more than as shallow, good ole wordplay, but Kinsella alternates between growling and squealing the line, and the result is a solid, interesting rhythm. Similarly, Liz Payne’s sweet viola and Nate Kinsella’s thick cello pull a sleazy vibe bounce away from the forefront for Tim’s strange line, allowing him to breathe in a striking blank space, and it seems like Joan of Arc have an impressive grasp on how to maneuver their obvious instrumental prolificacy. The major disappointment—giving the lyrics a rest—in Cheney is that such restraint, such intuitive use of silence and “empty” space, does not continue.

Fuck recently proved their chops in handling the spaces between notes as well as the notes themselves on their LP Those Are Not My Bongoes(2004). Goofy lyrics and stark, creeping pianos hugged the black space of tidal sound clips and tape hiss, eschewing structure for a masterfully articulated mood. Joan of Arc do the opposite, pounding new sounds repeatedly into empty slots best left alone. Take “Onomatopoepic Animal Faces,” a dragging piano dirge. The song barely alters its pace from lamenting chamber piece, the piano reaching something resembling violence in the chorus alongside Kinsella’s already predictable timbre, but that is it. The track almost succeeds, as the piano does have an engaging sense of omen, but Kinsella seems impatient, yanking the rhythm too quickly ahead, eager to fill the piano’s downtime with his endless barrage of sloppy poetry. “The Details of the Bomb” suffers from the same lagging ennui.

“Apocalypse Politics” also trips through bare instrumentation, tossing a number of rustic acoustics at each other behind Kinsella’s hopeful musings on clouds and dreams. Here, the acoustics sound crisp, bouncing off each other without sounding crowded; even Kinsella takes a step back. Unlike the kinetic instrumentation, though, the song makes no strides in altering pace, and Kinsella’s atonal blah-blahing steer the mix away from any memorable moments. Cheney does have a smattering of points that do justice to the huge potential of such a number of musicians. Opener “Questioning Ben Franklin’s Ghost” bridges jabbing string sections with a charming Mary Tyler Moore-esque whirlwind of chimes.

“A Half-Dead Girl named Echo,” when it finally wrenches itself from the half-assed Godspeed You! Black Emperor intro, slips into a shuffling, sinister chorus that encourages gleeful body spasms. “Gripped by the Lips” works beautifully as a synth-wash accompaniment to dawn, even surprising in its jarring guitar solo straight out of Poison’s cock rock oeuvre. ”Abigail, Cops, and Animals” is some badass acid disco, Kinsella acting as pre-howl Black Francis. “Fleshy Jeffrey” is the march of the mole people into a burlesque house, organ and accordion matching their lazy sinfulness with the Decemberists’ best. Lordy! Kinsella even sings something not half-bad: “Let the mothers faint ‘cuz I’m putting the fun back into funeral!” Sure, I like it. It’s funny.

But even in such times of promise, the usual criticisms apply: Kinsella’s unrelenting lack of melody, his horribly self-absorbed and nebulous lyrics, and an overall misuse of timing force the rest of the mix into the periphery for a more numbing, frustrating listen.

I have no doubt that Kinsella and Co. know exactly what they’re doing. Besides the vocals, Cheney displays some serious technical adroitness. Electronic instrumentals “‘Still’ from Miss Kate’s Texture Dictionary” and “The Telephones Have Begun Making Calls” course through rehashed Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada, respectively, but the patience of each track is astounding, and I consider this an admirable quality in the face of many neo-digital doodlings (I’m looking at you, Jamie Stewart).

Ultimately, what is left? “Jesus…Jon Stewart…Shaq…NAFTA…Alistair Crowley…Clear Channel, Clear Channel, Clear Channel.” With this increasingly indecipherable string of contemporary and historical figures colliding into the final cut, “The Cash in and Price,” Joan of Arc’s pseudo-political ramblings reveal themselves, if they haven’t already, as not much more than muck. So, the world is hurting, our government blows, and Dick Cheney’s got one hell of a miserly scowl; is that it? It seems as if Joan of Arc are aiming at more, but the weight of such turmoil and the metaphysical burden of discerning one’s own place in the mess deserve better than what Kinsella has to offer. Like a story, a concept album must articulate its structure, allowing equal emphasis to musical variance as it does to consistency and to the accessibility and flow of the lyrics. Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain… just subsists too dependably on instrumental pummeling and high school stream-of-consciousness dreck to let any ideas, musical, political, or emotional, escape from being strangled. If we’re going to accept our harrowing national struggle through sad synth-soaked post-rock and neat cover packaging, I’ll take my Fuck and call it an election.