There's a prosaic reason for why Oh Brother, the new album by Chicago-based, indie-rock band Joan of Arc on local experimental rock label Joyful Noise Recordings, came out the way it did: Tim Kinsella, the band's sole permanent member, lead guitarist and lead singer, had just bought a new version of Pro Tools, the music editing software suite, and he needed to work with some raw material to help himself master the program, to ride out the learning curve.
So he seized upon tapes from some of his own recording projects that had never come to fruition: several aborted Joan of Arc sessions that came very close to being completed as albums, with only vocal tracks left to be recorded; an aircheck tape from an improvised session on a college radio station that was never meant to be released. And he set about piecing them together into a sound collage, thereby giving new life to these abandoned works from his recent past.
The end result is an 80-minute double-album comprised of four 20-minute tracks, each the length of one side of an LP. Kinsella, whose Joan of Arc will play a release show for the album Friday at the Melody Inn, told me that, just as digital technology inspired the creation of the album, analog technology, in the form of the long-playing record, helped to determine how it took shape.
"The big thing is I had finished grad school, and was really excited to return to music after a couple years of being like a Sunday-afternoon painter," Kinsella explained before a concert in Washington, D.C., this week. "So we had a few Joan of Arc practices where we were talking about what we wanted our new songs to be like. We were talking about mp3s, iPods, people listening to things on shuffle, and we were like, our songs need to be one side of a record long. If it's going to be a record, it should fulfill the format of a record...So we were writing these songs, and we'd get home and listen to the demos, and we we're like, 'Wow, that's really fucking boring. That's just way too long.'"
While Joan of Arc's new material didn't end up working at a length of 20 minutes per song, Kinsella kept the idea in the back of his mind, and resurrected it for Oh Brother, on which each flowing, dream-like piece seems to need an entire side of a record to develop, to build from the stasis of a drone to the activity of a full-on rock jam session.
Kinsella started out by working with four abandoned album projects and one live recording. Eventually, employees at his band's primary label Polyvinyl decided they actually wanted to realize one of those abandoned albums, and Kinsella was left with four recording sessions to edit together.
One planned album, which would have been called "Friend/Enemy," was recorded in November 2004, or just after the Bush/Kerry election, as Kinsella times it. It was a prolific time for Joan of Arc, with all band members living together in a loft space.
"We were pretty obsessively recording a couple records," says of that time. "At any moment, 24 hours a day, two people were somewhere working on the record, in one nook or cranny."
Another project, oracularly named "Mineral Totem" by Lungfish lead singer Dan Higgs, took shape while Kinsella spent two weeks as a producer-in-residence at an Ohio arts colony.
A third abandoned album would have been called Likins, and was a collaboration with Lichens bassist (get it?) Rob Lowe. A covers project, it was comprised of songs that he and Lowe listened to when they met, during the summer of 1995 — tracks by Huggy Bear, Nation of Ulysses, Antioch Arrow, Lungfish.
And Kinsella also worked with a live recording never intended for release, a performance with Chicago-based free jazz drummer Frank Rosaly that was part of a weekly series of live improvised concerts broadcast on a University of Chicago radio station.
Oh Brother is Joyful Noise Recording's second release by Joan of Arc, and the first release of new material by the band that is exclusive to the label. Labelhead Karl Hofstetter first connected with Kinsella after he approached Polyvinyl with the idea of releasing a cassette retrospective of Joan of Arc's full-length work, an idea realized last year with a limited edition run.
Kinsella hopes that "Oh Brother" won't be heard as only a sound collage, but as a coherent, full-length work that happened to have been constructed out of material recorded across many years and with many different collaborators.
"In the end, it should be expressive as a full piece, and that sort of editing or collage could be disruptive. So it's intuitive to be aware of not letting the collage aspect or the editing get too clever or intrude on the expressiveness of the thing as a whole."