Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain: If uttered as a riddle about which of the three has made the most significant contribution to music this year, at best, the Chicago-based Joan of Arc might hope to tie for second. In fact, that would be unlikely, since the band has released one of the most unflinchingly unlistenable albums I’ve ever heard. Coming in first is Cheney, who at least inspired some legitimate protest music. And unlike Joan of Arc, Mark Twain at least had the good sense to stay dead.
Although touted by supporters as a genre-defying act, Joan of Arc, by virtue of much of the band’s latest work, might be best placed in the music-not-worth-the-effort-to-illegally-download category. Early in their existence, the band showed glimmers of promise, employing an out-of-the-ordinary musical style that relied just as much on the provocative use of blank space as the typical conventions of melody. We hoped they might have followed their artistic forage into the undiscovered outskirts of rock. Tim Kinsella’s tremulous vocals had a tenuous balance of innocence set against somber, and at times precocious, lyrics. Optimists may have called the project refreshing.
Barring a scant few successes toward the middle Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain, however, the original promise and charm have worn off and left Joan of Arc sounding like stale, pretentious art rock.
These are the cold, hard facts:
1. The musicians are competent but uninspiring on this album.
2. The album’s too-slick production only sheds further light on the music’s mediocrity. Take opener “Questioning Benjamin Franklin’s Ghost,” which mixes frolicking drums with all-too-peppy quasi-lounge piano for a disastrous and corny effect.
3. The novelty of the electric-blip backdrop and atmosphere of fuzz and feedback has worn off, and we are left with several pointless tracks such as “The Title Track of This Album” (clever, no?), which interposes a litany of voices repeating the album’s title into aimlessly sinister electronic background noise.
4. The lyrics are pretentious at best and unintelligible as the rule (or perhaps we are all just to believe that we’d understand if were smarter), like these on “A Half-Deaf Girl named Echo”: “Soon it will be so every face can be paraphrased, and will that be enough to keep you in your place, or the opposite, the opposite, the opposite? ‘Cause I’m always blind in the moment.”
5. Finally, Kinsella can’t sing. Any track showcases that. It’s a challenge to find one clear note in “Apocalypse Politics.” Here, where the characteristic quirky electronic blips and beeps might add something, only acoustic guitar backs the singing. The guitar work on this one is good, but it’s spoiled by Kinsella’s discordant squawking.
The album’s only accolade is that few others would have the balls to commit an album like this to their catalogue. And for this blatant disregard for common sense, Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain earns a courtesy 1.5.