Joan of Arc’s posthumous release, “How Can Any Thing So Little Be Any More” 8 song CD EP (JT1057) is released today.
Joan of Arc has called it a day after four remarkable albums and a handful of singles. Tim Kinsellas and crew spent the last few years chronicling the oddyshape of a band trying to erase everything they ever learned about pop music and bust down the hollow constructs of how music is supposed to be made. Their last stand is a new 8 song CD EP entitled How Can Any Thing So Little Be Any More? out May 15. Culled from the legendarily epic The Gap sessions, but doen’t sound much like it – the final utterance is haunted, graceful, calm.
After five years and four albums, Joan of Arc has officially called a cease-fire in its war against preconceived pop notions.
Though the atmospheric post-rock outfit made waves in indie circles, the band’s techie post-rock sound never made much impact on the mainstream. Nonetheless, the band continued to push the envelope of expression throughout its career. The band didn’t cite any reasons in its decision to split.
The decision isn’t an out-of-the-blue shocker, however. The band’s front man, Tim Kinsellas had already released a series of solo recordings on Troubleman Unlimited (read full story), and rumors had circulated about the band’s imminent demise for some time.
Joan of Arc does leave its fans with a final glimpse of its inner workings, however. How Can Any Thing So Little Be Any More? features eight songs taken from sessions from last year’s The Gap (Jade Tree) (read Aversion’s review), though the songs included have a much more straightforward feel than the twittering blend of synth pop and post-hardcore of The Gap. How Can Any Thing So Little Be Any More? is scheduled for a May 15 release.
From the very beginning, Joan of Arc have been considered nothing more than an "emo" band, or at best a band that thinks they are so great because they are "weird." "Look, we are really experimental!" However, I have always felt that Joan of Arc were never given the credit and respect that they really deserve for being exactly what they are, a really creative deconstructive pop band.
Through the years and their different albums, Joan of Arc have become better and better at writing pretty guitar parts, making them into really beautiful songs, and then cutting them up and piecing them back together in another form. The Gap continues this trend by being one of their most cut up and difficult album to date.
I realize that a lot of people might really just prefer that Joan of Arc release the original songs the way they were originally formed, and I can’t say I completely disagree. Their more traditional songs are really wonderful to listen to, and the few they do include per album really help to hold the album in place. However, as difficult of a listen as some of their other songs can be (this album in particular), the reward is definitely worth the time and effort invested. Through the process of song creation, deconstruction, and reformation, the songs created are more unique, interesting, and even more enjoyable to listen to for a longer amount of time.
"(You) Can Not See (You) [Me] as (I) [You] Can" starts off the album with a lulling tone, repeating guitar line, and laid back singing. Each individual track repeats at different times and cleanly cuts out at different times from each other creating a totally new rhythm within the song. Another lulling ebowed guitar part comes in near the end, and stays constant, pulling the whole song back together and slowly taking it completely over.
The Gap continues where their last album left off and is just one more step away from traditional song writing. It contains songs similar (in style) to the ones on their earlier releases: beautifully drifting collages of sound and brilliantly fractured pop songs. This is the best Joan of Arc record to date, and with a little time and effort, hopefully more people can see past the inaccurate broad strokes that Joan of Arc have been painted with and give them the credit they deserve.
Just how far is this post-rock thing going to go, anyway? If Joan of Arc has anything to say on the matter, which, incidentally, it has just about as much as anyone else going, it’s going to go a lot, lot further. The Gap proves just that.
If Joan of Arc is right, and this album does nothing but show just how right it could be, whatever fears indie rockers have of having their precious scene swallowed up by the mainstream are totally unfounded. With the band’s latest it swings away from the electro-pop that ran around the edges of its quirky sound, as it instead embraces avant-garde experimentalism with new vigor. A loose, airy collage of wispy melodies, haunting atmospheric sounds, electronic plinks and squawks and, of course, singer Tim Kinsellas’ trademark whine, The Gap pushes Joan of Arc further away from traditional songwriting than ever before.
That’s not to say it’s been abandoned entirely, however. There’s still an undercurrent of convention holding Joan of Arc’s most eccentric songs together, though at times, such convention is so badly abused by the band it’s surprising the relationship hasn’t fallen apart all together. While the band’s previous work fiddled with layered pop, The Gap concentrates more upon its looming sense of space, and the power its emptiness creates. Songs like "Knife Fights Every Night," which stammers between lilting piano melodies and sharp stand-up bass, and "Me and America (or) The United Colors of the Gap," with its stumbling rhythms and in-and-out stretches of melody simultaneously contradict and abide by standard songwriting formulas. Rhythms, melodies and arrangements move in great arcs, making it difficult to grasp them until they’re viewed with an eye to the grand scale.
Kinsella’s lyrics prove just as fragmented on this record as on other albums, with the exception of "Zelda," a collected remembrance of schoolboy days. Other tracks, however, bustle with unfocused energy and impressionistic fragments. More disjointed than on previous lyric tracks, Kinsella floats through hazy themes that further enforces this album’s experimental leanings. More often than not, The Gap’s vocal tracks serve only as an irritating distraction from its interesting soundscapes.
The Gap shows just what it claims: the gap separating Joan of Arc from the packs of post-rock songwriters; the increasingly large gap between the band’s pop sense and its experimentalism; most importantly the gap between its aim and its reach. While The Gap hints at freewheeling experimentalism that could blossom into a powerful new force in indie rock, though at this point, the band is mired in its most confused and scattered album to date.
Chicago’s Joan Of Arc and its eccentric lead singer Tim Kinsella have a knack for making listeners think, an ability all too uncommon at a time when so much music is devoid of meaning. Formed from the ashes of underground punk favorites Cap’n Jazz, Joan Of Arc’s first two albums — A Portable Model Of and How Memory Works — make an emotional impact without relying on standard “emo” style guides. But after the departure of bassist Eric Bocek and guitarist Sam Zurick, Kinsella and Jeremy Boyle were left as Joan Of Arc’s only members (Todd Mattei joined shortly thereafter).
Hole up in the home of noted producer and engineer Casey Rice and work gradually on Live In Chicago, 1999 (Jade Tree). This new approach has yielded a very sophisticated record, with a myriad of possible interpretations for Kinsella’s quizzical lyrics.
Kinsella and Mattei took the road for a short tour in early May, prior to Live’s release, to test out songs in highly stripped-down renditions. Nude As The News associate editor Jonathan Cohen met the duo in the basement of New York City club Brownies to discuss the new album, the recording process and their favorite Fiona Apple videos.
NATN: How many shows have you guys played on this tour?
Tim Kinsella: Six shows, I think. We were just going to go on a trip, but it ended up that we were asked to play some shows. We actually didn’t even practice before we left. We didn’t know how it would sound.
NATN: Who is in the band currently?
TK: Originally my brother Mike — he played drums on the last record — he’s been in and out the whole time. He played drums before the first record was recorded, quit before we recorded that record, toured for that record, recorded the second record, toured for that and then quit.
Eric and Sam, who played bass and guitar the whole time, quit and started Ghosts And Vodka, which is way more mathy and rocking than this. We replaced the two of them with Todd. We downsized a bit.
NATN: Can you talk about the basic differences between the last record and this one?
NATN: Or, compositionally.
TK: Well, the process of making this was a lot different than the last one. For the last one we had completely written songs, we just went into the studio and recorded them.
This one, instead of going into a big studio for a short amount of time, we went and recorded it in Casey Rice’s living room and were able to spend about four months working on it. The songs were really just kind of “parts.” We could then put the parts on tape, and write to the recording and re-arrange it.
NATN: Some of them are more fragmented than others. But “Who’s Afraid Of Elizabeth Taylor?” and “If It Feels / Good, Do It” seem pretty fluid.
TK: Even those were put together during the recording process. We recorded it all on Pro Tools software, so you can just chop it up and say, “Oh that was nice. Let’s repeat that this many times, or let’s shorten that.” They were all put together that way.
NATN: Having had the experience: Which method of recording do you prefer?
Todd Mattei: I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about the future. It’s one really interesting way of doing things.
TK: I think I’d be interested in doing the opposite approach, just to get back in the habit of actually writing songs as a band. I wouldn’t say we’re going to do one or the other for good.
NATN: Can we talk about the meanings of a couple of the songs?
TK: The meanings?
NATN: Well, there’s some very interesting imagery on some of the new songs, especially “Me (plural).” (a piano-heavy duet with singer Jen Wood)
TK: I wouldn’t really know how to [explain the meaning]. I think we’re all kind of way more into throwing something out there and seeing what we’ve got, instead of starting from an idea and trying to focus on that idea. So, uh, that song is about a couple different things, and you can kinda have your idea what it’s about…
NATN: So, you guys are comfortable with each listener interpreting the songs differently?
TK: Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s a large part. That’s why we did these shows [ed. note: a short tour with only Tim and Todd performing] without the full arrangements of the songs. The songs sound completely different. “Me (plural)” for example — without the bass line, the drum roll and the piano, it’s a completely different song. It is very interesting to say, “OK, this is how we made the song sound — now if we just play these parts, how will it sound in different peoples’ heads if we just play these parts — how will it sound without those parts there?” I’m all about leaving it open to be finished by someone else.
NATN: Talk a bit about the cover art and the tie-in with the movie “Weekend.”
TM: That’s a really tough one. I think it’s a fun thing because the cover art can be taken as sort of in a similar way to the music. It’s there to be part of it, and not just a dressing. I guess that’s all.
TK: That’s kind of how I see it. The cover art makes no sense. You can’t make a story out of the stills we have depicted from the movie. It’s like us doing these shows without the whole band. If you take those parts of the movie and isolate them, you don’t get the whole movie by any means. Some of the themes are sort of similar (to the music), so I like that, but it’s also open-ended and cartoony and that’s kind of important.
NATN: Is that Casey Rice stuffing a sandwich in his face?
NATN: What’s the movie about?
TK: I can’t really explain it, but it’s definitely worth seeing. I’ve seen it like 10 times. It’s kind of a funny, apocalyptic, socialist manifesto told backwards. It addresses every element of culture and fucks with it.
NATN: I’m sure there’s already been a fair amount of confusion over the album title, no?
TK: (asking Todd) You, or me?
TM: Oh. You’re the word guy.
TK: I’m kind of curious to see what you think. We’ve never talked about what he thinks. The way I see it is: In Chicago, there’s this very small neighborhood from this bar named the Rainbow to this other bar named the Goldstar, to our house, to this cafe named Jinx to this restaurant named Leo’s. Casey Rice lives in there, we all live in there. Everyone we know lives in a six block radius — it’s like being in a college dorm. You all know who is sleeping with who that month, or who quit which place to work at another place. And that’s what we were in the middle of when it was happening. It’s very much like, in my mind, a record about me living in that little microcosm.
NATN: What were the last few records you guys bought?
TK: I just bought Scott Walker 2. And Autechre.
TM: The new Bonnie Prince Billy is really good.
NATN: Are you guys psyched for the Joan Of Arc miniseries on TV?
TK: I’ve heard about, but I don’t know anything about it.
NATN: So, how does memory work?
TK: I don’t know, man. The week that record came out, we were on tour. I don’t remember where we were — South Dakota or some shit. We were at a convenience store and Newsweek that week had “How Memory Works” really big on the cover — a special issue all about how memory works. You can read that Newsweek and find out. I bought a couple copies.
NATN: What’s your favorite Fiona Apple song?
TK: I just like the videos.
NATN: What’s your favorite Cap’n Jazz song?
TM: I like the whole anthology (released on Jade Tree Records).
TK: I don’t really have a favorite.
NATN: Okay then, how about your least favorite?
TK: The name! We can start with the name, which would be my least favorite.
Say what you want about Tim Kinsella’s voice, but his is an instrument capable of producing beautiful music both in and out of tune, sung or screamed. His lyrics are smarter and, at times, more sincere than the typical sentiments projected by American indie rock. It’s clear the guy knows what he’s doing, but too often on Joan Of Arc’s new album Live In Chicago, 1999, one wishes Kinsella would just allow himself to rock out.
Part of the charm of JOA’s excellent 1998 album How Memory Works was Kinsella’s ability to see the humor in his own obliquely worded observations. And indeed, a number of songs on Live suggest the band, now pared down to a trio and receiving across-the-board assistance from engineer Casey Rice, is offering its own inside-joke take on the highbrow music scene of its Chicago hometown.
But Kinsella seems overly concerned with keeping a straight face — an attitude which extends to the song titles (figure out what, if anything, "When The Parish School Dismissed And The Children Running Sing" means), the cultural name-dropping in the lyrics and the bizarre album art, a "recreation" of scenes from a 1967 French movie.
Joan Of Arc’s music has always been arty and technologically enhanced, but on Live the band signs away its spontaniety for overly long and slow songs absolutely awash in studio manipulation. For awhile, this new "sound" works fine, especially on the shyly pretty "Who’s Afraid Of Elizabeth Taylor?" and the horn-tinged, groovy "If It Feels / Good, Do It." The aforementioned song about the parish school gets a lot of mileage out of a simple, acoustic melody and some low-key synths. The one other breakthrough is "Me (plural)," a piano-driven, drum-rolling march that Kinsella sings with Jen Wood. This is Kinsella at his most sincere, playing into the the stereotypes placed on him by others : "I’m left confusing me / for who you think I am."
But for the most part Joan Of Arc downshifts at the slightest threat of picking up a musical head of steam, which is unfortunate for a band usually so energetic. The Trans Am-esque drumming at the beginning of "(In Fact I’m) Pioneering New Emotions" gets quickly dragged into a plodding folk tempo that uses Petey Wheatstraw as a metaphor for lifelong happiness — that oughta send the emo kids running to ye olde blues section.
"Better De’d Than Read" is an okay acoustic guitar instrumental, but it’s on songs like this and brittle album closer "All Until The Greens Reveal Themselves At Dawn" that the band reveals an unhealthy resemblence to Gastr Del Sol, repeating passages over and over to little effect.
It’s hard to begrudge Kinsella’s desire for sophistication, but when it comes at the expense of the qualities that previously made Joan Of Arc so rewarding, one wonders if its a worthwhile trade-off.
The Promise Ring and Joan Of Arc, the two bands into which seminal punksters Cap’n Jazz splintered, favor divergent routes to sonic bliss. The Promise Ring’s spirited emo-pop has earned it a huge following and larger record sales than Cap’n Jazz ever experienced in its short existence.
But Joan Of Arc’s music works in a different realm. Extrapolating Cap’n Jazz’s punk pathos into a more restrained but similarly hard-hitting modus operandi, the band fuses widely disparate elements into a tangible show of emotion. Musically, Joan Of Arc references prominent Chicago post-rock bands such as Tortoise and the Sea And Cake. But it’s Tim Kinsella’s eccentric lyrics and heart-in-hand vocal delivery that propel Joan Of Arc past the often sterile sounds of its Windy City brethren.
How Memory Works, the band’s second album, displays perhaps the most creative use of electronics and composition within a rock framework since Analogue’s stunning 1996 opus AAD. Like AAD, How Memory Works is woven together by bits of analog synth noise and short songs that never overstay their welcome.
The band makes an emotional impact with varying speed. The faster songs bristle with a romantic, smile-inducing urgency, especially "This Life Cumulative," with its insistent beat, repeated major-key riffs and quizzical lyrics. Kinsella’s vocals in "A Name" ebb and flow with stop-start rhythms, morphing into an awesome twin-guitar duel at song’s middle. In the new-wave-meets-prog "God Bless America," his brittle intonations crack under the strain of the song’s clenched-fist chorus.
Gastr Del Sol is a logical comparison for plaintive tracks such as "To’ve Had Two Of," with its acoustic guitar-and-vocal intro and gradual introduction of a cello and human voices. And while Kinsella’s nonsensical lyrics and unpredictable pitch at times detract from the music’s effectiveness, his performance on album closer "A Party Able Model Of" may find the listener with moist eyes.
It’s here, via a haunting piano/strings foundation, that the band invokes the myriad of rarely verbalized emotions that get buried under life’s daily experiences. "Everyone’s quiet when the record ends," indeed. Rarely has such a simple observation resonated so profoundly.