Joan of Arc
Polyvinyl Records, 2013
Review by Kent Manthie
It’s been a little over two years now since Joan of Arc’s last release, Life Like, a real masterpiece, which was one of the best, most cohesive and intense musical efforts to come out since, probably, Boo! Human. Now it’s June of 2013 and, those familiar with JOA know how often their lineup changes, Tim Kinsella, frontman, being basically, their Ian Anderson – i.e., the only member to have played on every JOA album (some people may say – “but wait a minute, Kent, I thought guitarist, Martin Barre was also on all Jethro Tull albums – well he was on all except their very different sounding debut This Was, which has more of a jazziness to it and not the medieval-tinged, poetic as well as the heaviness etched into later stuff, like Benefit, Aqualung and Thick as a Brick, to name a few). But getting back to JOA – the point is – this time, the last two albums they’ve made were done with basically the same lineup, the only difference being that on Life Like, sometime guitarist (and a member of the forerunner band, Cap’n Jazz), Victor Villarreal, who did a stellar job playing dueling guitars with Tim, was absent on this one, Testimonium Songs, otherwise, it was Tim, Theo Katsaouris (drums) and Bobby Burg (bass). Theo plays a relatively small drum kit – one bass drum, one snare, a hi-hat, two crash cymbals, two small tom-toms, mounted on top of the bass drum as well as one bigger, deeper stand-alone tom-tom. But – no matter, Theo still manages to bash the hell out of those drums and achieve a big, bombastic percussion rhythm that rivals that of any of those big, ostentatious heavy metal bands of the 80s who would have 2 bass drums, about 5-6 crash & ride cymbals, hi-hats and all kinds of little, skinny tom-toms, medium and large tom-toms, etc…To watch Theo play is a treat – he is so into it. He is so focused on pounding the hell out of the skins that he is in his own percussive world. Then Bobby Burg, the other part of the rhythm section, plays more like a jazz bassist – meaning he’s not all over the place like Jack Bruce or Chris Squire, but is more of a time-keeper, like the legendary Paul Chambers, Jimmy Garrison, etc. (I can’t really say Mingus, since, Charlie, being a band leader as well as a bassist, was a gregarious bassist, who had some slick chops). Bobby blends in just right in a lot of the JOA songs on which he plays, so much so that sometimes you can’t even really distinguish him, but, if he were to switch off his amp, you’d definitely miss it. Other times, though, he does fill in the quiet spaces, percussively as well as tonally, adding flourishes.
Every song on this, basically, EP, is a great tune, just as all songs on Life Like were fantastic. I still love every song on that album and always listen to it – as well as all my JOA albums – all in one sitting. Though Life Like only had 10 songs, it was about 50 minutes or so, whereas Testimonium Songs has six songs and is only 33 minutes long. They’re all fabulous songs, so I can’t say that this or that one is one that sticks out more than others. So, I’ll just say a word about each of the six unique, incomparable -literally: there’s nothing on here that I heard that made me think of anything by any other band or artist; Joan of Arc have their own sound and their own path that they follow. Their past may have a hodgepodge of various members that have come and left and in some cases come back again (and left again): the band is one big revolving door. So, the EP starts out with “Amelia”, a short little ditty that somehow drags you in and keeps your brain focused and intent on hearing the whole thing out. “I’d Expect Babies Should Fly, If Not at Least Float Away” is a tightly knit and very contagious tune, followed by “Mosaic of Bolts” another one that just keeps on strengthening this chain of excellent music. “Stephen’s Song” is only one minute long, so is more of a kind of connective tissue that binds the first half to the latter half. Then comes the 14 minute “The Bird’s Nest Wrapped Around the Security Camera” followed by the closer, the not-without-JOA’s-typical-dry-humor “Jury Duty”
I remember seeing them when they set out on a selective tour of venues around the country in support of Life Like. I was lucky enough to see them at the Casbah, in San Diego, CA.
Now, it’s 2013 and the same lineup that was a part of Life Like, minus guitarist Victor Villarreal, make up the Joan of Arc for Testimonium Songs, So, though there won’t be the really cool dueling guitars of Tim & Victor, it will still be the basic building blocks that was there for the extremely unctuous Life Like.
The songs that comprise Testimonium Songs are a set of songs that are set to be performed live as part of Testimonium, a work of performance-art by legendary experimental theater ensemble, Every House Has a Door. That should, itself, be quite an interesting live show.
Alas, I’ve had a look at their upcoming tour dates and I saw that they don’t intend on making a return to San Diego this time around. I have a slight idea that this may be due to the rather lackluster turnout at the Casbah, when they played here, May 16, 2011. Unfortunately, only about 50 or 60 people showed up. Now, The Casbah isn’t that big of a club, but it can surely fit a much bigger crowd than the one that showed up at their 2011 show. I honestly felt bad for them – they are such a unique and legendary band and they deserved to have a much bigger turnout of people. It might just be that the West Coast doesn’t contain their biggest audiences. But even if they’re not playing here in San Diego, if I see that they make a stop in L.A., then I will make the 2 or so hour drive there just to see them. For most other bands these days, I wouldn’t even bother, but this is the amazing, singularity known as Joan of Arc we’re talking about here. They aren’t what I would call a “road-weary”, “gigged-out” band, so I want to take any chance I get to go catch them playing live. I bet when they play in their hometown of Chicago, they get a lot more people showing up; it’s their home, so I’d think the real die hard, there-from-the-start, cult-following would emanate from the Windy City.
Chicago, these days, is home to a great and ever-changing music scene. It really has been for a long time, going back to the days of John Lee Hooker and that Chicago-style of blues, which of course, differs from the Muddy Waters school of blues that emanated from the deep South: Mississippi, Georgia, etc. The same way that today’s indie scenes have different sounds from different parts of the country – you have your nihilistic Seattle sludgeworks, your hipster, downtown NYC Art-Noise-Avant-Garde scene, the Los Angeles Olio – the diverse, coming together of sounds from as far and wide as the places from where the people emigrate that make up this mixed-up batch, which, when it gels, synergizes into a new sound altogether. That’s a good subject for someone to do a PhD thesis on. But for now, let’s focus on the album at hand: Testimonium Songs – it’s fabulous, it rocks, it has all the elements of the dadaist poetics that constitute the lyrics and the rhythm is just one big bombast that really glues it together. GO OUT AND GET THIS!!! (You could start by either going to http://www.polyvinylrecords.com or going to Amazon.com – either place would have this – and it’s out now!) – KM