Joan of Arc

The Gap (Jade Tree Records)

It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that Joan of Arc mastermind Tim Kinsellas is acutely peculiar, at least as far as his compositions are concerned. A random sampling of songs from Joan of Arc's past three records would prove as much -- from the "too smart to be a pop star, not smart enough not to be" declarations on the band's debut, A Portable Model Of, to the title track on last year's Live in Chicago, 1999 (which, incidentally, is not a live album), where frantic drum beats are swapped with a cappella whispers ending with the lyric "I'm just so so so sick of shouting monosyllabically."

Once you step away from the preconceived notions of what a "song" should be, forgetting verse/chorus/verse structure, delicately arranged sculptures of sound suddenly materialize, building up, crumbling down, oscillating in and out of range in pulsing, pseudo-synthetic waves. Kinsellas is a weird, angular sort of songwriter, the way Picasso was a weird, angular sort of painter. And those who overlook the unconventionality of Joan of Arc's material are duly rewarded.

The Gap is a relatively quiet opus compared to the rest of the band's discography. One of the more ingenious methods the group employs is in the stripping-down process; some songs on The Gap at one time consisted of more than 100 separate tracks, yet the finished product is exceedingly minimalist. The confluence of samples with acoustic guitars and other natural elements has always been the band's calling card, but the electronics, once blatantly in the foreground and occasionally jarring, have faded into the back. On The Gap, the electro elements still drive the songs, but in a far more subtle fashion.

The album opens with the echoes of people shuffling around a room while gentle acoustic guitar notes set the pattern that the song, "(You) [I] Can Not See (You) [Me] as (I) [You] Can," will weave, slip and hover around. The album is built around seemingly random collages of instrumental progressions. This approach is held together on a string by Kinsellas' soft, high-pitched vocals. While areas of The Gap are loose instrumental affairs, the band's songwriting is solid throughout, especially on "As Black Pants Make Cat Hairs Appear," "Me and America (or) The United Colors of the Gap" and "Your Impersonation This Morning of Me Last Night."

"Areas" is a better representation of the pieces on The Gap than the "songs" are; often the track separations bear no relation to the actual parameters of the pieces. "John Cassavetes, Assata Shakur, and Guy Debord walk into a bar" and "Another Brick at the Gap (part 2)" are essentially one extended transition between "Knife Fights Every Night" and Kinsellas' first-person paean to Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Zelda."

The beauty of Joan of Arc's work continues undiminished because the band hasn't let the constant drive to experiment paint it into a corner. To wit, the straightforward piano/vocal cover of Scott Walker's "Thanks for Chicago, Mr. James" on Live in Chicago, 1999, and The Gap's minimal softness and nods to traditional arrangement, both of which demonstrate the group's constant and whimsical evolution. Soft and pretty as it may be, Joan of Arc will never be classified as easy listening.

 
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