Joan of Arc Boo! Human

[Polyvinyl; 2008]

Styles: ornate neuroses and technical collages
Others: Make Believe, Owen, The Love of Everything

The most deserved accolade one could place on Boo! Human, and in fact most later-era Joan of Arc output, is that it's an entirely digestible piece of music. It’s miles away from the erratic, only occasionally successful experimentation of the band’s last concentrated album for Polyvinyl, 2004’s Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain (disregarding the similarly scattershot B-side and rarity compilation The Intelligent Design of... in 2006). Indeed, Boo! Human is a more restrained specimen, allowing its experimental compositions to grow from a sense of calculated jam session-type collage work in place of extensive post-recording mixing and production. It's more closely aligned with the songwriting simplicity of the largely acoustic-based Eventually, All At Once and the gentler nature of 2003’s So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness. The point being: Tim Kinsella and co. seem much more interested in crafting aurally pleasing songs on Boo! Human instead of being the weirdly caustic anti-firebrands of something or another.

Boo! Human was recorded over a single week, with performances from a veritable laundry list of Chicago regulars (including the members of Kinsella’s other band Make Believe and his brother Mike, otherwise known as Polyvinyl singer/songwriter Owen) and a sign-up sheet denoting who would perform when and on what tracks. This sort of cobbled-together mentality has soaked into every one of the album’s 14 tracks, producing a relatively straightforward whole. A track like “Just Pack or Unpack,” for example, feels almost as loosely improvised as tightly constructed, while “A Tell-Tale Penis” can’t be anything other than intentional in its dizzying layers of lovely guitar work.

Each track is assembled around Kinsella’s pseudo-apocalyptic musings (whether emotionally apocalyptic, socially apocalyptic, politically apocalyptic, et al.), and in nearly every case, the accompanying music does a sound job in further elaborating the points. Joan of Arc’s appeal for some and grotesque bane for others has often been Kinsella’s weird and fractured lyrical content. On Boo! Human, he lets loose in a way that’s not always overwhelmingly impenetrable, while still being true to his personal track record. “9/11 2” might be a brief and melodramatic mess, but it’s probably an honest one. More successful is “So-And-So,” an understated and clever piece featuring Kinsella alone on guitar. As on Eventually, All At Once, the songs here are of a more immediately personal nature to Kinsella, and as such are easier for the listener to grapple with.

Boo! Human is the ideal release for a band more than ten years into its existence. A decade of music-making and it’s not unfair to say that Joan of Arc have seen some pretty spectacular highs and a few puzzling lows. It’s rare for musicians to age so gracefully (and regardless, no one in Joan of Arc is really old either), and yet here one finds the band mellowing a bit from the over-exuberance of their early output while still retaining the ability to engage and be inventive. It’s a total win, for everyone involved.

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