This Saturday, Chicago-based indie rock band Joan of Arc is playing at the Highdive as a part of the Pygmalion Music Festival. To get ready for the show, I decided to check out one of the band’s latest releases, Oh Brother (2011, Joyful Noise).
The album came about as an attempt to combine four unfinished albums written by founding member Tim Kinsella. The result is four twenty-minute tracks that intricately weave ambient-noise jams with previously recorded JOA material. To further the appeal, the album features 14 other renowned artists including jazz drummer Frank Rosaly and Hella’s Zach Hill.
The album’s first track, “Oh Brother #1”, holds a very patient, mysterious intrigue. It gently guides listeners through layered synthesizer drone-scapes which slowly evolve into noise jams, featuring free-jazz drumming and squealing electric guitars. In the middle of the track, the band suddenly breaks into a structured tune, a descending distorted guitar line, backed by heavy drums and bass, colored by violent electronic beeps. By the end of track, I was impressed by the wide array of textures explored in the song, but I felt concerned by the sheer length of the album, questioning whether the band was asking too much from its listeners.
“Oh Brother #2”, is, in my opinion, the strongest track on the album. It (almost) logically transitions from a heavy, metallic-sounding synth beat to a mournful guitar ballad, to a noise-funk jam (featuring one too many wah-wah pedals for comfort), into a dreamy, acoustic folk-tune at its close. Ultimately, I felt this track was successful due to the re-introduction of the metallic-sounding synth beat at various times throughout the piece, which made each section hold a significance that was related to the track as a whole.
The third track, “Oh Brother #3”, is by far the weakest on the album. The song opens with the same drone heard at the beginning of the first track. Beyond the intro, the song is one noise collage to the next, cohering only once into some semblance of a structured piece of music somewhere around thirteen minutes. And frankly, the “song” in the middle of the song was nothing more than a few fast-picking, highly distorted guitars and yelling on top of a hectic, driving drum beat. I hate to rag too much on this track, as I am a proponent of improvised noise jams. I do feel, however, that noise has to be placed within a structured context. That is noise, on its own, is appealing for only so long, and only when it is immersed within a structured song, or surrounded by structured music, does it gain any higher value.
“Oh Brother #4” closes out the album in an exhaustingly similar manner to the other three tracks. That is, it is one overly long noise jam, cohering only vaguely into structured music for very short periods of time. I felt, however, that this track did a good job highlighting the use of various acoustic instruments such as pan flute and banjo. Furthermore, this track contains the one and only vocal sample featured on Oh Brother (a tune half sung, half spoken in slurred English), which adds a refreshing new texture to the song.
On the whole, this album is overly ambitious, and grows to be redundant and frustrating over time. While it is a worthy attempt to blend fragments of unfinished work in hopes of constructing something larger, I ultimately feel that each structured musical idea introduced is too dissimilar from the unstructured material surrounding it to cohere into something greater than its individual parts.
On the other hand, I do feel that seeing this type of music in a live setting would produce a drastically different outcome. Highly improvised experimental music like that of Oh Brother holds the ability to produce an intense, organic energy that can only be experienced in the moment of its creation. While in a recorded sense, listeners approach this music as a finished product, one that (falsely) promises some sort of higher value or cohesion. So, does that mean Joan of Arc’s performance could potentially out-do this album? Absolutely. I know I’m going to the show.