You could design an algorithm to scan through every song lyric ever recorded, and it probably would not be able to find a more perfect example of the pot calling the kettle black than Joan of Arc’s Tim Kinsella singing “Jesus really was so goddamn pretentious.”
Chicago indie rock enfant terrible Kinsella is an insanely prolific musician. A press release for Joan of Arc’s latest album, 1984, called it their “hundredth and one full-length album.” For a band that’s only been around since 1995, it doesn’t seem that outrageous a lie. As Kinsella’s constantly mutating art project, the band has released a deluge of albums, split singles, and bizarre one-off experiments.
A few things remain as constants throughout most of their discography, like Kinsella’s vocals (which can range from slacker mumbles to bratty childish outbursts). Joan’s distinct musical style is a blend of acoustic and electronic sounds, and a scrambling of emo rock and confessional folk, that gives them a spastic free-jazz intensity.
There’s also a Dadaist smartass sensibility that runs throughout Kinsella’s work. OG Pitchfork writer Brent DiCrescenzo summed up Kinsella perfectly by calling him the musical equivalent to Harmony Korine. Odds are good if you like Korine joints like Trash Humpers and Mr. Lonely, you’ll probably find something of value in Joan LPs like He’s Got the Whole This Land Is Your Land in His Hands and In Rape Fantasy and Terror Sex We Trust. Like Korine, Kinsella’s work is sloppy, self-indulgent, and willing to do whatever it takes to get a rise out of you. But there’s also charm to be found, too: Even when Kinsella fails, it makes for a good show. A lot of his risks don’t pay off, but at least he’s willing to take them.
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One case where the band’s forays into freaking-the-squares paid off is 2000’s The Gap. Lambasted and dogpiled by critics upon its release, it’s still a pretty hard record to take in in 2018. A 10-song album that basically plays as one long track, it’s full of atonal noises (like the sound of breaking glass punctuating “As Black Pants Make Cat Hairs Appear”), intentional skip effects, and a ghostly production style that fades songs in and out. These intriguing songs feel like sketches being rubbed out in real time. It’s spiky, mostly minimalist music that feels like Kinsella taking Erik Satie’s idea of “furniture music” and sticking a few rusty nails under the cushion.
While The Gap exemplifies some of Kinsella’s worst tendencies (flagrant name-dropping of folks like Assata Shakur and Guy Debord, dumb pun song names like “Another Brick at the Gap”), it also reveals the band’s secret weapon: They actually can write beautiful music when they want to. Buoyed by triumphant strings, “Me and America (Or) The United Colors of the Gap” is the album’s most genuinely shocking moment because it’s so goddamn catchy.
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“Truck,” the new single off 1984, is another one of those surprising moments of auditory bliss.
With lead vocals by Melina Ausikaitis, “Truck” sounds like a New Age pop song fronted by a drunken child. Ausikaitis’s lovely voice meanders over a field of meditative bells, synths, and faint orchestration. It’s so unabashedly pretty.
Perhaps 1984 will be the greatest heel move of all: Kinsella taking off his Andy Kaufman mask to reveal that he’s been trying to be His Name Is Alive this whole time. Or maybe “Truck” is just a decoy and 1984 is going to be 40 minutes of Kidz Bop covering Van Halen’s 1984. Who knows what to expect from Joan of Arc?
Joan of Arc play on Monday, July 9, at The Lunchbox, 4132 East McDowell Road, #7. Tickets are $10-$12 at ticketfly.com.