Say what you want about Tim Kinsella's voice, but his is an instrument capable of producing beautiful music both in and out of tune, sung or screamed. His lyrics are smarter and, at times, more sincere than most of the typical sentiments projected by American indie rock. It's clear the guy knows what he's doing, but too often on Joan Of Arc's new album Live in Chicago, 1999, one wishes Kinsella would just allow himself to rock out. Part of the charm of Joan of Arc's excellent How Memory Works album was Kinsella's ability to see the humor in his own obliquely worded observations.
Indeed, a number of songs on Live suggest that the band, here pared down to a trio and receiving across-the-board assistance from engineer Casey Rice, is offering its own inside-joke take on the highbrow music scene of its Chicago hometown. But Kinsella seems overly concerned with keeping a straight face -- an attitude which extends to the song titles (figure out what, if anything, "When the Parish School Dismissed and the Children Running Sing" means), the cultural name-dropping in the lyrics, and the bizarre album art, that "re-creates" scenes from a 1967 French movie. Joan of Arc's music has always been arty and technologically enhanced, but on Live the band signs away its spontaneity for overly long and slow songs absolutely awash in studio manipulation. For awhile, this new "sound" works fine, especially on the shyly pretty "Who's Afraid Of Elizabeth Taylor?" and the horn-tinged, groovy "If It Feels/Good, Do It." The aforementioned song about the parish school gets a lot of mileage out of a simple, acoustic melody and some low-key synths. The one other breakthrough is "Me (Plural)," a piano-driven, drum-rolling march that Kinsella sings with Jen Wood. This is Kinsella at his most sincere, playing into the the stereotypes placed on him by others: "I'm left confusing me / for who you think I am." But for the most part, Joan of Arc downshifts at the slightest threat of picking up a musical head of steam, which is unfortunate for a band usually so energetic. The Trans Am-esque drumming at the beginning of "(In Fact I'm) Pioneering New Emotions" gets quickly dragged into a plodding folk tempo that uses Peetie Wheatstraw as a metaphor for lifelong happiness -- that oughta send the emo kids running to the blues section. "Better De'd Than Read" is an OK acoustic guitar instrumental, but it's on songs like this and the brittle album closer "All Until the Greens Reveal Themselves at Dawn" that the band reveals an unhealthy resemblance to Gastr del Sol, repeating passages over and over to little effect. It's hard to begrudge Kinsella's desire for sophistication, but when it comes at the expense of the qualities that previously made Joan of Arc so rewarding, one wonders if it's a worthwhile trade-off.