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Joan of Arc

Poor Joan of Arc. Ever since they arrived on the college radio scene in 1996, their blend of space rock, emo/indie rock, jazz noodling, and electronic flourishes has earned them the label pretentious. Perhaps this characterization can be traced to the liner notes of their '97 debut album, A Portable Model of Joan of Arc, which include the line, "No, you are not mistaken, this is a concept album." What? Concept album? Concept albums are for '70s prog rock bands like Yes, King Crimson, and Pink Floyd, not for young midwestern suburban kids who used to be in Cap'n Jazz. But if Neutral Milk Hotel can put out a concept album, why can't Joan of Arc? Especially if it's as densely layered and clever as A Portable Model.

Musically, Joan of Arc glides along on softly plucked acoustic guitars, video game boings, keyboard blips, and fragmented sound collages dispersed attentively throughout their songs. With the help of Chicago post-rock sage Casey Rice, their recordings improvise their own paths, abruptly cutting from "song" to "song" in a rally of random sound snippets that morph in and out. Tim Kinsella's singing, rarely in pitch, finds a balance among the sparse instrumentation and electronic flutters of his band mates. Kinsella has always seemed more interested in finding words that sound good next to each other than attempting to convey any sort of coherent thought. Here's a sliver from the featured song "White Out," from the band's second album How Memory Works ('98): "There's fruit flies on the toothbrush and teeth in the sink. Pick and chews." Whether you call it free association, twisted genius, or incoherent ranting, it somehow perfectly complements the rambling, inventive music.

"Hands," from the aforementioned A Portable Model, blends Kinsella's off-kilter vocals with an equally-quirky collage of electronic bleeps and tuneful guitar lines. "(I'm 5 senses) None of them Common," from the album Live in Chicago, 1999 (which was recorded in a studio, not in front of an audience) is a delicately obtuse composition that engages today's technology with a stripped-down aesthetic.

Joan of Arc has had a revolving cast of characters throughout its existence. For Live in Chicago, they slimmed down to a three-piece featuring Kinsella (words, guitar), Jeremy Boyle (computer), and Todd Mattei (electric guitar). For their fourth album, though, the mini-epic The Gap (2000), the group beefed up to five members, adding Mike Kinsella (drums, bass, guitar) and Matt Clark (bass, guitar, piano). The Gap wasn't going to change their minds of those who already thought of JOA as pretentious, but for fans it was confirmation of the band's great genius: a twisted, deconstructed combination of fairly traditional acoustic sounds and warped, claustrophobic Pro Tools-created minimalist randomness. "Me and America (or) The United Colors of the Gap" highlights that strange juxtaposition as well as the obliquely satirical edge of the album. The How Can Any Thing So Little Be Any More EP (2001), largely culled from the Gap sessions, largely continues in this vein. "Pleasure Isn't Simple" is a deceptively simple, out-of-tune acoustic ditty.

Conceptual and contextual, subversive and sublime, Joan of Arc is always inventive and often irresistible.