24 August 2010

An Appreciation of Joan of Arc (the band)

If you search Pitchfork, the hipster haven for music on the internet, for Joan of Arc and look at the record reviews, you'll see that nothing by the band has gotten above a 5.3 out of 10.  And these are just the record reviews they show from their search engine.  I know I've seen a review of How Memory Works a long time ago, but they must have begun deleting some old reviews or something.  But the point is that I remember that review being extremely low as well.  The Gap has a 1.9 out of 10.  I'm going to avoid the fact that this decimal rating system can't be anything but completely arbitrary, besides the already obvious subjectivity behind it, but it does seem like this entire music website has something against Joan of Arc in particular.  I'm not in deep enough with the Chicago music culture to know of any feud between the band and the monolithic "indie" (if a website providing news of Beyonce and Kanye can still call itself that) website to say this for certain (and that they give positive reviews to Owen and Owls makes me wonder what it really is about Joan of Arc that they really can't stand).  I guess it could just be that everyone there, despite Joan of Arc being a hometown Chicago indie band, genuinely doesn't like or even hates Joan of Arc.  I guess it just bothers me when I compare their Joan of Arc reviews with reviews of Deerhoof, Dirty Projectors, and Xiu Xiu (some of the most annoying god awful noise to be emitted from any group of people for a profit) with high ratings and "Best New Music" tags next to their names.

I like Joan of Arc.  A lot.  They're hit and miss at times and their newer stuff, Flowers and Boo Human aren't the best things they've produced, but still have their amazing moments, like all of their albums.  Songs like "This Life Cumulative" and "(I'm 5 Senses) None of Them Common" have this unique rhythmic and lyrical pattern that's catchy yet defies all convention.  The use of a variety of instruments, coupling soft acoustics with electronics is one of the many reasons How Memory Works is such a fantastic album.  Sometimes it's really hard for me to tell whether their songs have an immense amount of work put into them or if they're free form derives from an organic expulsion of structure, unconcerned with classical forms.  Either way the effect is great and original.  "Perfect Need and Perfect Completion" is one of the most eerily somber songs I've ever heard, and its lyrical form is baffling.  And the instrumentation behind the vocals, its clean and low beat yearning, expresses both the internal mindset and the external world imbedded within it so well.   The entire So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness album almost requires an environment of a rainy day spent in bed.  And in much the same way Live in Chicago, 1999 is a transparent, fractured, defeated record that feels like it could barely manage to be recorded.  That's not to say that it's bad, but the feeling is akin to the after effects of being trampled on by the culture and by the mishaps of love.  The first song is even called (and I find humor in this extremely emo title) "It's Easier To Drink On an Empty Stomach To Eat On a Broken Heart."

I think I can honestly understand why people, critics initially, didn't or don't like The Gap.  You would probably need to be a deconstruction nut or looking for something completely formless to enjoy this album.  I think it would sound something similar US Maple turning into an emo band or a softer, non-aggressive and less political version of Yes Sir, I Will.  There are even times in the middle of the album, between "As Black Pants Make Cat Hairs Appear" and "Me and America (or) The United Colors of the Gap" where I get sort of bored with it, but overall I enjoy that there is an album like this out there no matter how hard it is to find in stores or even for an illegal download.  The reason that I appreciate it is because it comes across as genuine to me.  If Tim Kinsella were in this to make money or solely to preserve an image, he would have stopped a long time ago.  This is a band from the era of Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie, and while those bands, for better or worse, got more popular and became more accessible with a less gritty sound (in the case of Modest Mouse), Joan of Arc continue embrace their obscurity with little reward for it.  And the fact is, despite the struggles the band has with its lack recognition, even within their own community, resulting in more than likely an increasing economic strain, they are more prolific than almost any other band given the time frame of their existence.  And the quality along with the quantity of the output is amazing.  Ten full length albums in about 13 or 14 years.  Some of them better than others, some of them I'm still getting used to.  But albums like How Memory Works, Live In Chicago, 1999, The Gap, and So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness have become vital to my music-listening existence.

A couple of nights ago I had the pleasure of seeing this band, after roughly 5 years of listening to them, for the first time at Ronny's, a dive bar in Chicago with an ironic room labeled "Ronny's Center For the Performing Arts."  I wasn't expecting them to play anything old.  The amount of songs in their history, along with numerous side projects would make me believe that it's extremely difficult for Tim Kinsella, as well as his constantly revolving and importing of band members to remember songs from 1998.  But to my surprise right after they opened with "Flowers" from their newest album of the same name, they transitioned straight into "So Open: Hooray!," one of the greatest songs not just on How Memory Works, but out of their entire oeuvre.  Their live rendition of it had so much vigor, I got chills when Kinsella, clenching his eyes closed while picking guitar strings, continually screaming, instead of almost whispering, as on the album, "Let's sit and stare at each other" with the drums and bass loudly present behind him, also unlike the album version.  I was in awe of the way that the entire band could play in such an untraditional way yet still all be on the same page, musically.  I'm not sure if the band was expecting to do an encore, since this was a dive bar, and even in their hometown, the crowd barely filled the room.  But by the end everyone was demanding one and they came back with the always great "Who's Afraid of Elizabeth Taylor."  So far, the best shows I've been to this year have been the Jesus Lizard, The Melvins, and Lightning Bolt.  This show was obviously a much different environment than these other bands, but in its own way it ranks up there with the best shows I've been to in 2010.

Ultimately the great thing about Joan of Arc is that their unconventional songwriting and musical structure, with revealing emotional lyrics, not only lays bare the workings of Kinsella's mindset and aesthetic praxis, but also portrays a freedom from modern pop music confines in songwriting, as well as a confidence in letting out ardent, authentic emotional material barely practiced by other bands.  For this reason I wouldn't call their work "faux-art rock," like Pitchfork claims, or even label them as a "hipster" band.  There is substance and feeling behind their work, not a drive to valorize an image.  And like most things completely genuine, which usually goes hand in hand with unconventionality in the face of our modern culture, unfortunately their music doesn't get the recognition and support it deserves.  Fortunately for people like me who relish in and anticipate every release with a boyish giddiness (they're one of the only bands anymore that I can still do that with), this band is persistent and continues to struggle to make great and interesting music.

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