For some of us, the golden age of Chicago post-emo outfit Joan Of Arc is the late 1990s. Albums like 1997's A Portable Model Of and 1998's How Memory Works feel like near-perfect successors to the dissolution of the Kinsella brothers' landmark emo band Cap'N Jazz (which also featured Davey von Bohlen, who went on to form The Promise Ring). What makes those albums so exciting is how they almost serve as a preview of all the lauded Kinsella-related projects—like American Football, Owen, and Owls—that would pop up in the following decade. You can hear the growth and experimentation develop tastefully—the jangled polyrhythmic guitar harmonies of "White Out" would be shifted into focus by American Football and Owen, and the slanted rhythms and raspy crooning on "The Hands" would end up pouring over into Owls. Both records had plenty of range and fresh ideas, but they really didn't feel self-indulgent.
Fast forward 20 years and 20-plus albums, and Joan Of Arc has developed a reputation for being mercilessly self-indulgent and not especially cohesive—even amongst Kinsella diehards. And while 2016's groove-driven He's Got The Whole This Land Is Your Land In His Hands (and that title, what the fuck) sounds way more like an album than, say, 2004's Joan Of Arc, Mark Twain, Dick Cheney, it's still pretty straining to listen to.
He's Got The Whole… opens with "Smooshed That Cocoon," which pretty much sets the tone. We've got an infectious and promising, Timbaland-esque groove that resembles Nelly Furtado's "Maneater," but then it just kind of meanders aimlessly as cloudy vocals and synth bloops walk all over it, and the song never fully congeals. "This Must Be The Placenta" is a similar story—it's got a tight drum groove with what resembles a beautifully designed entanglement of synth and violin dancing circles around it, but it just sort of wanders into a void. One of the stronger cuts, "Grange Hex Stream," peels away some of the pretentious whims and actually feels pretty focused in contrast—packed with fuzzy and squiggly electronics, a stabby bassline, and anxious crooning. What's most frustrating about Joan Of Arc is that we know what they're capable of and their albums tend to feel overly jammy, indulgent, and non-committal, despite the fact that its members have arguably been responsible for some of the most influential emo and math-rock monuments of all time. Maybe I'm just an asshole, but coming from musicians with such a pedigree, there's something troubling about lyrics like "I know how the nicest guy in ISIS feels" and the word "boink" sung in "New Wave Hippies" or "I'm Phil Collins, I drum and I sing even if my arms are tired" on "Never Wintersbone You." —Joel Shanahan