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"One, two, three/This is rock history." When you hear Joan of Arc's Tim Kinsella moan this line over some drowsy drumming and watery guitar jangle halfway through the band's stridently unrocking new album, Live in Chicago, 1999, you assume the joke is on him. After all, even by current standards of stylistic vagary, Kinsella's end-of-indie music is amorphous and spectral. When the 24-year-old lets loose for the occasional punk bellow, it's still light years away from Rites of Spring, the '80s emo-core punks who first inspired a 15-year-old Kinsella and his drumming brother Mike to form Cap'n Jazz while still in high school.
But while his first band's pimple-punk tunes (compiled on 1998's Analphabetapolothology) were rambunctious, Joan of Arc's songs announce their presence like misaddressed letters or foggy notions. Aimless drums buoy brittle acoustic guitars, while Kinsella's restless, barely sung vocals often seem stuck in a conversation he doesn't know how to finish. On the band's three full-lengths, of which the non-live album Live in Chicago is perhaps the weirdest, said conversations usually flow into Kinsella's most common thematic streams: the ongoing struggle for self-definition during one's early 20s, and the trainloads of baggage one brings to each stop along the way. Even when expressed in bookish lyrics like "You say it's the Veda Pierce in me versus the bell hooks in me," this stuff makes for pretty damned involving, if rarefied, rock 'n' roll.
And as rarefied rock goes, Joan of Arc is a pretty involving little band. The artiest node in the diffuse Mid-Amerindie emo-core scene, whose star is the 30,000-selling Promise Ring (also a Cap'n Jazz offshoot), the Chicago trio works out concepts like most bands pin down tunes. Last year's How Memory Works opened with a song called "Gin and Platonic," and went on to reference pointillism before dropping the cringe-inducing T.S. Eliot riff, "In the rooms the women come and go/Talking of Leonardo DiCaprio." While such ponderous hokum occasionally means the songs lack sonic viscera, Kinsella and bandmates Jeremy Boyle (keyboards) and Todd Mattei (guitar) don't skimp on studio FX. Like fellow Chicagoans Tortoise and Jim O'Rourke, the group trades energy for expanse, shading its esoteric indie rock with electronica and chamber instrumentation.
For those of you keeping score at home, all this suggests the final stage in hardcore punk's progression away from Minor Threat, toward Fugazi, and into the outer hinterlands of expressionism. In a post-slack era where disdain for pretension often spells mistrust for commitment on any level, the willfully romantic Kinsella, whose lyrics often play with Catholic iconography, seems not just admirable, but endearing--even sweet. Against the ductile acoustic fingerpicks on the gentle "If It Feels/Good, Do It," Kinsella bays, "Monogamy's just a function of capitalism/A consequential construct of culture."
That line might be believable coming from the mouth of, say, Jay-Z, a hardened realist who enters any genital exchange, long-term or not, with a firm understanding that its meaning can only be weighed against the money he spent on the ice around his bitch's neck. But while it's nice to see Tim putting his DePaul women's studies B.A. to good use, all his demystifying can't hide the fact that he sees his most minute emotional and sexual response as something strange and sacred--as powerful as Scripture itself.
Listening to this music, you can begin to understand why one of the few fully realized characters on Live would be an unknowable "Catholic girl," who, when she leaves him cold, inspires Kinsella to admonish, "Jesus knew only Judas loved him enough to know how to fuck him." Just as it's no shock that among the record's more prominent characters are the married couple at the opening of "Sympathy for the Rolling Stones." Or that so many of these unfinished conversations feel like the snapshots of monogamy-gone-tough that occupy the first half of Yo La Tengo's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One or Richard Buckner's Devotion + Doubt.
This is rock history for sure, from "Born to Run" to the John and Exene Show to Like a Virgin--the history of bad love in a culture that supplants human connection with clichés it hardly even feigns fulfilling. Kinsella's struggle to crack these codes might be a lost cause, but for an idealist who considered calling his latest record "No Future for Me," it's a step in the right direction.
Joan of Arc perform an early evening concert Saturday, June 5 at the Foxfire Coffee Lounge with the Milwaukees and December's Architect; (612) 338-2360. They will also perform a late concert the same date at the 400 Bar, with Sliver and Dwindle opening; (612) 332-2903.
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