Thursday, 18 November 2010

Why Pitchfork Are Wrong About Joan of Arc


I was genuinely surprised when I discovered Pitchfork's collective stance on Joan of Arc. I say the collective stance, because of the six albums reviewed, the most generous score was 5.3, and that was somewhat oddly attributed to Tim Kinsella's baffling creation, Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain.

"Yup," Marc Hogan writes, with a detectable sigh of resignation, "another record by perennial Chicago snob-rock pissing alley Tim Kinsella(s) and his rotating cast of enablers".

Again, in a scathing review of The Gap, Brent DiCrescenzo writes, "Tim Kinsella and Joan of Arc are back with the minimal, random The Gap. Live in Chicago, 1999 was certainly "abysmal," but that word implies a "bottomless," "fathomless," or "infinite" depth of horrible. How can one proceed further than the infinite? But let's skip all this classification and reification of "horrible" and cut to the chase: Joan of Arc make unlistenable faux-art records".

Putting aside the fact that many have claimed that DiCrescenzo writes unreadable faux-art reviews (cf. Ripfork's countless satirical attacks), his stance is justifiable. I may be one of those blind Kinsella followers that, in Jullianne Shepherd's words, "love him with frothing passion", but I can kind of understand Pitchfork's point of view.

There is no definitive line-up in Joan of Arc, and the project can be better described as a loose collective than a band. Each new recording concept is undoubtedly a product of the abstract mentality of Tim Kinsella, and in his endless thirst for experimentation he often gets it wrong. But in putting Joan of Arc in the firing range for a timely release of pent-up critical vitriol, Pitchfork are sorely mistaken.

Say what you like about Tim Kinsella, no-one can deny that he is seminal. Since Cap'n Jazz was set up by the Kinsella brothers in the late eighties, the band has exerted a profound influence on contemporary indie music. Kinsella's raw, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, his innovative development of math-rock riffs, his antagonism towards conventional melodic patterns - love them or hate them - have influenced many well-known bands and invariably changed the way we approach indie music today. Looking at the abrasive vocals and fiddly  musical phrases in the songs of Manchester-based Hot Club de Paris, it is difficult not to see a nod to Cap'n Jazz's more melodic numbers, such as "Precious" and "Little League". Couple this with Hot Club's (studio) album title, Live at Dead Lake - a distinct reference to Joan of Arc's Live in Chicago (also a studio album) - and it is clear that Kinsella represents, for them, an important predecessor.


In that notoriously gutless establishment which is the contemporary indie scene, Joan of Arc is to my mind one of the bravest feats of the last decade. In "I love a woman (who loves me)", Tim Kinsella confesses that he is "too smart to be a pop star, not smart enough not to be", and his music seems to constantly explore this feeling of creative impasse, searching for a form of expression which is adequate. Kinsella, who aspired to be and perhaps has always conceived himself as a poet, stretches and plays with language to a point where it becomes nonsensical. Musically, equally, he pushes the boundaries of what we describe as a 'song', placing droning white-noise above whispered fragments or getting children to bleat atonally in minimalist recordings.

"Joan of Arc has abandoned the pastiche ethic of past albums to create compositions that flirt with being... songs", William Bowers sneers in his unforgiving review of So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness. But the "pastiche ethic" and this cultural conception of what makes up a "song" go hand in hand. Kinsella martyrs himself in the process of gleaning what works and what doesn't. He is an experimentalist through and through, telling his critics in "I'm Calling Off" that "all my best mistakes have taken years of concentration". The fact is that not all Joan of Arc recordings are songs - some are poems, some are self-indulgent noise - but the records always yield a few precious musical endeavours which manage to attain the right balance.

"Sympathy for the Rolling Stones" finds acute poignancy in minimalist acoustic threads, weaving behind fragmentary poetry and gentle, fuzzing interjections. "If it feels/ Good, do it" pits lilting jazz motifs alongside Kinsella's vocal melodies and some of his most interesting lyrics to date, evoking a world of poorly lit backstreets, run down bars, and world-weary consumerism. "I am over the counter-productive culture", he sings repeatedly, after crooning ironically, "we all know monogamy's just a function of capitalism, and love its consequential construct of culture".

What Kinsella seems to distrust and deliberately avoid is the monolithic cultural consensus of what a musician is and what makes a song. He steers well clear of the conventional verse-chorus-verse blueprint; I think, to the benefit and liberation of the songs he writes. When a form fails to have resonance, good artists change it, develop it, or just scrap it in favour of a better one. Kinsella tells stories, but like a some of the greatest literature they do not always have a traditional beginning-middle-end format. If James Joyce made music, Pitchfork might have given him a 3.5, too.


It's all too easy, though, when someone criticizes Joan of Arc (or Cap'n Jazz, or Make Believe, or indeed any other addition to the Kinsella franchise) to retort,"You just don't 'get it', man", reaffirming the overwhelming suspicion that the front-man of "snob-rock" outfit Joan of Arc is (maybe) just a little bit pretentious. But Kinsella's work is not meant only for the elite few who 'get it' and it is not intended to be alienating and unfathomable.

Perhaps part of the reason for the venom of Pitchfork reviewers is the fact that they are asked to listen to each album from beginning to the end, to treat it like a cohesive narrative, to take the wheat with the chaff, so to speak. "At some point, I stopped listening to it and began tolerating it", writes Pitchfork-critic William Bowers, but the experience Bowers had of painstakingly sitting through the entirety of the record, song-by-song, is not one which speaks the music-listening habits of the internet generation.

Since the revolution of music distribution in the cyber-age, music listening has become less about albums and more about songs, and Joan of Arc's music should be listened to with that in mind. The band is not a fixed group of musicians; the emphasis changes and every album and song is distinctive. Kinsella's recordings can sometimes seem more like concepts than songs, but he is also capable of writing beautiful music. How Memory Works has many of the traits of a brilliant pop album, with memorable hooks and catchy melodies. All fans of Kinsella will have a favourite epoch, album, style, project, or movement of his which for them represents the fruits of his experiments into what works. They will also, undoubtedly, have an epoch of his which for them unambiguously represents what doesn't work. And it is this aspect of divisive experimentation that make his music relevant.

I don't "get" Kinsella. His music is varied, inconsistent, sometimes ugly and sometimes beautiful, like people. Sometimes it fails and sometimes it succeeds, but it always tries. And this is what the critical world doesn't "get" about Kinsella, and it is also why Pitchfork are so, so wrong about Joan of Arc.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

What the Folk Revival Says About Us


Joanna Newsom, in an interview conducted four or so years back, baulked at a question regarding the ‘new folk’ scene. This type of folk is not in the least bit ‘new’, she claimed, citing artists such as Bill Callahan and Vashti Bunyan who have been making this type of folk music for years. Besides, within every categorisation - ‘freak folk’, ‘new folk’, ‘psych-folk’ - there is an inherent arc. This movement that we like to call ‘new folk’, she argued, invariably has its own death built right into it.

But surely even Newsom would find it hard to deny that this folk revival can fairly be termed a movement. She, after all, is one of the people at the centre of it. At the turn of the century, a counter-cultural scene surrounding the folk genre came to seem, somehow, increasingly relevant and appealing for our generation. In the twenty-first century, popular folk music has once again officially hit the mainstream, infiltrating mobile-phone adverts and approaches to fashion. So, why folk and why now? What does a genre which champions the raw, human element of music mean to a generation which defines itself terms of its technological advancement? 

It may seem na├»ve to define a cultural atmosphere by its interest in a genre of music, and perhaps it is. Folk music, however, is and has always been the manifestation of a specific ideology. The ‘folk’ ideology is, roughly, what the etymology of the word implies: giving a voice to the people. What folk is and what it says may be reinterpreted through different epochs and generations – hence our contemporary ‘new’ folk – but it always seeks to represent the unadulterated voice of the people, of communities of human beings.
If the ‘voice of the people’ sounds disconcertingly political, it’s because it is. Folk artists in from the 40s through to the 70s, figures such as Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, wrote lyrics protesting against war and modern materialist culture. Dylan’s songs attempt to evoke a nomadic, aural music culture, reminiscing nostalgically about a time when music was the primary medium of the story-teller.  Joni Mitchell, in “Blue Motel Room”, uses the cold war as a simile to describe a power struggle between two lovers who are “always keeping score”, stating in her hit song “California” that “they won’t give peace a chance - that was just a dream some of us had”.  


This spirit of protest has been revived in contemporary folk music. In a world of such impressive technological advancement and dependency, even the use of acoustic instruments and old-fashioned recording equipment appears to be making a significant point. The concept of the ‘voice of the people’ is manifested in the production of music which uses the organic sounds of the human body, along with all its so-called imperfections. The songs of California-based Shelby Sifers use four- and eight-track recorders, and Sifers makes a point of leaving in the count-downs, coughs and periods of fuzzy silence which are intrinsic to the process of recording and creating music. Modern folk is music which has been subject to hyper-distillation. It is music which has been paired down, and this pairing-down must be understood in the context of a culture which is becoming increasingly built-up; a culture of over-populated cities, high-rise buildings and sensory saturation.

Folk artists of our generation have been misguidedly associated with nomadic culture, with living in tepees, with living in the forest; in brief, with a culture that is fundamentally alienated from the urban culture in which we now exist.  To connect it with these things is to fail to understand that modern folk music is inexorably a product of a post-industrial, technologically prolific society. The hype surrounding artists like Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart is a hype which has been predominantly generated through the internet. Music is downloaded, listened to on computers and MP3 players, and subsequently blogged about. In this context, the revival of folk music represents a widespread yearning for the unmistakably human; a return to the fundamental elements of human experiences; the rawness and the risk of live performance. This nostalgia is pin-pointed by Ani Difranco in “Fuel”, when she writes, “People used to make records, as in the record of an event: the event of people making music in a room”. 

Newsom was right when she asserted that to call something a movement is to demarcate a beginning and an end. Folk music represents an ideology which speaks to each generation, but the sentiments it expresses are unmistakably intertwined with the concerns of each age. Our current folk revival touches a nerve so deeply because it speaks to a society which feels over-whelmed, over-saturated and distanced from what makes humanity human: the courage of our convictions, and the courage to be fallible.  


Baths at CAMP Basement



In the fevered months following the release of Baths’ debut album, reviewers have ceaselessly trumpeted the fact that Will Wiesenfeld – the man behind the pseudonym - is young. Young, that is, for a musician who has been so astoundingly prolific. Although Wiesenfeld is still in his early twenties, he has already found a place for himself within the bustling electronic scene on the West Coast, shape-shifting his way through a spectrum of musical guises, and now embarking on his first ever tour this side of the Atlantic. 

Despite being a seasoned writer and performer, the truism sticks: Will Wiesenfeld is, indeed, surprisingly young. After seeing Baths perform live at CAMP this Monday, I was startled by his sheer, childlike exuberance. His on-stage presence emanates youth and excitement, vigorously engineering the playful touches he adds to his songs during performances, chatting amicably with the crowd during song-intervals, and dancing with genuine enthusiasm to the idiosyncratic rhythms of his music.
  
Baths’ set-list at CAMP was a lovingly compiled selection of up-beat tracks from Cerulean, complimented by two fresh compositions. The style of his performance was a testament to Wiesenfeld’s experience on the club circuit; the songs ran together seamlessly, and halfway through the performance of a new song he urged the sound engineer to turn up the volume, sending the packed crowd at the rundown CAMP basement into an attack of furiously off-beat dancing. But Baths’ music is not only meant for the dance-floor. Classically-trained Weisenfeld writes love songs; ones which are lyrically intricate and ones which speak to the marginalised. Before launching into the troubled melodies of “Plea”, he told the crowd that the song was “for any gay guys out there. Just to let you know it’s okay”. 

From the uplifting, choral tones of “Hall” to the hip-hop style “Lovely Bloodflow”, Wiesenfeld avoided some of the gentler songs in his repertoire which might have posed a challenge to the relentless energy of his set. Energy is his trademark, and, as the critics say, Wiesenfeld is young – but seeing his agile handling of the soundboard at CAMP this Monday, it is clear there are great things yet to come.