It's hard to keep up with the Cap'n Jazz alums. A lot of people seem to either love them or hate them, but with me it's been more like I half-follow half of their projects. Sure, Cap'n Jazz was great, but they had one album. American Football was great, but again, only one album. With Davey von Bohlen as the exception, these Cap'n Jazz alumni can't seem to keep a damn band together, and they are incestuous as the day is long. Check out this out-of-date family tree for proof of both here.
Joan of Arc would be the one example of a lasting Kinsella-boys project. With a release almost every year for over a decade with a short breakup to do Owls, Joan of Arc defied all odds and kept making music (but even then, Tim Kinsella has been the only constant member). For some reason (perhaps that they're anti-melody), I have avoided Joan of Arc. I've been mildly interested and have friends big into them, but I was never drawn in. I'm here to give it another shot, doing my homework by reading up on them and checking out their old records online along with the new release Flowers to try once again to appreciate the oldest Cap'n Jazz spinoff.
After listening to 1997's A Portable Model Of and Flowers back to back, I quickly conclude that Joan Of Arc haven't strayed too far from their original vision. Either that or maybe that they've come full circle after the (even by their standards) weirdness of 2000's The Gap and the reactions to it that helped temporarily break up the band. Their move to Polyvinyl from Jade Tree in 2004 brought with it a refining of their seemingly un-refine-able visions. But as I piece together a Lala playlist made up of their output of the last five years, I find little progression -- there are the more rocking weird songs and then the really weird songs, stuck in a loop. Then there's the saving grace for me, the acoustic-based songs that are a Kinsella family trademark. On Flowers, the instrumental title track returns often to a seemingly meter-less theme with Tim's acoustic hammer-ons, settling into a groove and later adding electric guitar swells and some downright beautiful yet menacing strings.
Tim Kinsella's melodies have never done a whole lot for me, but he sometimes makes up for it with his sense of humor. From "The Garden of Cartoon Exclamations," Kinsella finds himself "Among the zoinks-vines and shazaam-roots / Sufferin' succotash and leafy-green good-griefs" and later cracks me up when he sings what I believe is "Kittens named Kitler." The music is alright: a spooky walking piano line which is later mimicked in the vocals. Another funny moment comes at the end of "Tsunshine" with a collage of 'one-two-three-four' count-off samples. At other points, unfortunately few and far between, Kinsella makes pointed yet simple statements (from "Fogbow"): "Some people try not to eat too much / Some other people try to eat enough."
More on "Fogbow" -- these more electronic songs tend to bug me. The song lightly blips along with synths coming from a cave. It gets somewhat more interesting when staccato electric guitar joins and drum machine kicks up a notch. But "Fasting" has to be intentional in its annoyances. The 'song' is scraping metal noises and dissonant synth intervals, and that's it. As a musician I can see it being a laugh-riot to record, but it's not fun to listen to. But I guess it's not just the electronic tunes -- "Explain Yourselves #2" has a nice drum groove, but with a (pretty much) two-note vocal melody, a single organ chord and a little guitar lick peeking up that sounds like they sampled some guy who has never played guitar; it's grating, to say the least. "Fable of the Elements" starts unpromising with unpleasing intervals on a vibraphone, but when the brushed drums and standup bass force it into a sort of groove, it gets a cool jazzy feel and adds organ and tremelo guitar, showing they can salvage some of their artier moments into actual songs.
When Joan of Arc ratchet up the tempo it helps a little, too. On last year's Boo Human, "Just Pack or Unpack" showed that a nice Modest Mouse-y driving beat can pull the reins in just enough on the annoying tendencies of the group. Here we have "A Delicious Herbal Laxative," which keeps things moving and vocal-less, and while there is guitar dissonance, it doesn't get outta hand. "Life Sentence / Twisted Ladder" has cool interlocking electric guitar parts, a driving beat and Kinsella's most enjoyable vocals.
I don't think Joan of Arc would be doing their job if everyone liked this record. I applaud their unwavering vision, but at the same time, it's not for me. I can appreciate it on a level, but not the level that will have me reaching for this disc very often.