Short Cuts

Joan of Arc
Live in Chicago, 1999
(Jade Tree)

Joan of Arc's third disc is not a live album, as the title would have you believe. Rather it's the materialization of the members' collective artistic expressions while living in Chicago circa 1999. Tim Kinsella, frontman and mastermind of the threesome, is an ingenue when it comes to such conceptual wordsmithing. Consider a sampling of song titles: "if it feels/good, do it," "me (plural)," "(i'm 5 senses) none of them common," "(in fact i'm) pioneering new emotions."

Since Joan of Arc's first record, 1997's A Portable Model Of, Kinsella and crew have been either hailed as experimental visionaries or dismissed as collegiate juveniles posing as highbrow artists. Live in Chicago, 1999 cements the band into the former category, displaying an array of high-concept, meticulously executed pop songs that waver between ambient and abrasive.

"Who's afraid of elizabeth taylor?" uses filmography as a point of reference for insightful criticism, gently spouting lines like "you're acting for stage/and this is a film," over a repetitive, cycling acoustic guitar line that's broken by resounding bass plucks and subtle breakbeats. The type of cyclical melodiousness found on the track is a recurrent theme in Joan of Arc's repertoire. A Portable Model Of began with the track "I Love a Woman (who loves me)" and ended with "(I love a woman) Who Loves Me" -- different interpretations built with the same materials and repeating the self-fulfilling line, "too smart to be a pop star/not smart enough not to be." The same tack is taken on Live in Chicago; the opening track ends with the line, "all until the greens reveal themselves each dawn," which (except for one word change -- at for each) happens to be the title of the closing track (which doesn't include the lyric).

Joan of Arc attacks conventionality as well, by including a cover song, "Thanks For Chicago, Mr. James," by '60s pop phenomenon Scott Walker. JOA's version is a piano-driven, near-lounge track, with Kinsella handling the vocals with a degree of affectation never before heard from him. Perhaps the most characteristically experimental track on the album is the title track, which contains a drum roll barrage interspersed with statical white noise throughout, mixed in such a way that when Kinsella's cracking, high-toned voice chimes in, all other tracks disappear, then reappear when the vocals stop. In typical Kinsella lyrical fashion, the track ends with his mumbled statement, "I'm just so so/so sick/of shouting/monosyllabically."

At this point it would be prudent to know, if it's not already obvious, that Kinsella, barely in his early twenties, holds a degree in English lit., an accomplishment that's evident throughout his every project. "Me (plural)" emphasizes that literary precociousness over a sparklingly downbeat melody sprinkled with keyboard flourishes. Kinsella seems to be pondering both the swift disappearance of youth and the dilemma of public perception, singing, "the kids is dead/and i'm left confusing me for who you think i am/they all think they know it's wrong."

Of course it's never easy to figure out what the hell Kinsella's interpretive intentions are; given the chance, he'll construct any number of possible conceptual scenes around which Joan of Arc's pieces may or may not be built. But nonetheless the band takes pop artistry to new heights that are invigoratingly experimental but accessible all the same.

-- Brendan Kelley

Juno
this is the way it goes and goes and goes
(DeSoto/Pacifico)

Juno is a five-piece outfit from Seattle, a city that has produced more great bands than the average European country. Yet Juno has just as much in common with the slow rock of the Midwest and the expansive art rock of post-new-wave England as it does the pummeling grind of Seattle's musical legacy. That the band has three guitarists doesn't go overlooked, but Juno is not about vertical integration of the six-string; it's about staking out as much horizontal space as possible. The band uses musical barbed wire fences -- see-through but sharp enough to cut -- to mark its territory rather than paving everything over, which results in open spaces and plenty of room to wander around. Emo-core is usually a genre of limited resources, but Juno takes chances and it pays off.

The band executes its approach with patience and restraint; rather than going for the quick score, tunes build slowly and explore various directions. So instead of testosterone-fueled guitar workouts, Juno specializes in giving each instrument freedom and distance. "January Arms" -- constructed on bass chords, modest xylophone, and simple, watery guitar lines -- drifts lazily before zooming off. Floating on the sound, singer-guitarist Arlie Carstens (now almost fully recuperated from a broken neck and spine suffered in a snowboarding accident) emotes in a barely-above-a-whisper voice about someone who has worn out his welcome. But Carstens is the first one to crack; five minutes in he raises his voice, and the guitars switch gears to a choppy staccato and increase to a feedback-laden intensity that allows the rhythm section to flex its muscles. It's a powerful moment, and Juno extends it for a full three minutes with arpeggioed and blended noisy guitars. Instead of starting with the heaviness, the band members ease into the song, building tension and weight before releasing it with a thud.

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