Over their 20-odd year discography, Joan of Arc’s astute, endlessly probing musical experimentation— steadfastly resistant to dogma and genre at every turn—has been chorused by a barrage of voices, mostly from the singular larynx of mainstay Tim Kinsella, who remains endlessly obsessed with (and infuriated by) Orwellian language and it’s dominion over American life. Richard Brautigan, Mark Twain, Elizabeth Taylor, and Assata Shakur might visit his lyrics, but it’s the band itself that contains multitudes. Throughout Joan of Arc, Kinsella and his bandmates have hewn together a true artistic democracy—some two dozen members over the years—to confront the darkening political realities and interpersonal mysteries of our time. Like their namesake—a donee of revelation who became a fierce holy warrior, only to be discarded by a king and burned at the stake as a heretic—Joan of Arc has inspired their share of true believers and dismayed legions of skeptics.
Ever since Joan of Arc's most recent lineup— Kinsella, Theo Katsaounis, Melina Ausikaitis, Bobby Burg, and Jeremy Boyle— congealed and began playing shows locally in 2015, going on to record and release their most recent album ‘He’s Got The Whole This Land Is Your Land In His Hands’, via Joyful Noise on the day Donald Trump was inaugurated, fans have witnessed an even more radical democracy at work. ‘Your War (I’m One Of You): 20 Years of Joan of Arc’, a full-length documentary from Vice’s Noisey, was an initial window into the band’s generous collaborative spirit and the far- flung, improvised creation of that new LP. Live, old jams and new tracks have often melted and mutated, members jumping from instrument to instrument in between or in the middle of songs, all stasis discarded. And now, a series of nearly a cappella performances from Kinsella’s fellow vocalist Melina Ausikaitis, debuted live by Joan of Arc over the last several years, has become the backbone of their new LP, ‘1984’.
Remarkably, so much of the cluttered sound of earlier Joan of Arc LPs has largely fallen away on ’1984’, as has Kinsella’s voice. At first it’s genuinely shocking. But the songs here are a revelation, as profound and plainspoken as parables. Thoroughly of the band’s lineage, Ausikaitis’ lyrics are equally measured with wit, despair and stubborn perseverance. There is awkward sex at Grandma’s house. There are kids in the snow wearing cop sunglasses and the crumbling psychic defenses of childhood memories. There are A-frame houses and white horses. There are trucks losing their brakes on the hill at the end of the street. There are heaps of thoroughly useful self-help advice (“stop chicken-shittin’ all over your life” has become a personal mantra.). Like the album’s striking hand drawn cover art, the music inside is often spare. Anthemic highs ring from elegiac lows and back again. At times, Ausikaitis sings in an earnestly tangy and lovely flat twang redolent of the midwest, before screwing her voice up into a fearsome roar. Sometimes her voice is electronically distorted, like bells in the sky, into ringing eternity. On “Vermont Girl”, I’m not entirely sure she isn’t purposefully doing an impression of her bandmate just for the hell of it, and it cracks me up every time I hear it.
Whenever I’ve decided I have this band pegged, they’ve challenged and rewarded me: with a score for a silent film, in a half-hour minimalist cover of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” pounding through an art museum, by a performative collaboration with a theatre group, and one particularly memorable Empty Bottle show where they uncorked volleys of catastrophic EDM at a crowd that seemed to melt into the walls. More often than not, it seems like the less I’ve expected from them going to a show or tucking into a new album, the more I’ve received. The more I’ve seen others scratch their heads at this band’s steady defiance of expectations, the more Joan of Arc has made me see their artistic wisdom. On ’1984’, they’ve done it again, and I suspect they’ll continue to soundtrack my life beyond these past two confounding decades. These days there are too few bands that make me feel less alone.
You tried to be a person with no problems, but there is still time for you to get on Joan of Arc’s one way train and ride with me to their pyre of righteous, pure democracy. Put on your headphones and fire up ‘1984’ and remember yourself as a child, when your only tattoo was the memory of the first time you saw your mother cry written deep upon your heart. Listen: there’s no need to close your personal hole. It’s a place where only you can go. You got your head shaved cuz of the lice. Your collared shirts have the bottoms tucked inside. All of your life you’ve been eating shit, but look at us now. We’re real punk kids.
by JR Nelson