While Tim Kinsella’s work as Joan of Arc
frequently features a few usual suspects as support, last year’s self-titled album
let him stand largely alone, his eccentric, literary, deeply detailed ideas displayed in acoustic solitude. Though superficially different thanks to use of a full band and electric elements, Testimonium Songs
dips further into that bookish vein, as the album was written to accompany an experimental theater company’s interpretation of the works of Objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff.
As a movement, Objectivism emphasized a clear, informed, and sincere observation of the world. Reznikoff’s Testimony stands tall in that goal, a poetic translation of court transcripts on workplace conditions during the turn of the century. Both the danger of that reality and the beauty of the artistic examination comes through from track one, a heady, tragic, acoustic take on Reznikoff’s poem “Amelia”. Though it tells story of a sweatshop worker getting pulled into a sewing machine (“her hair caught on it/ wound and winding around it”), the song’s simple strumming and melodic hook are the closest the album gets to unnatural artifice and imposed structure.
Later on “Mosaic of Bolts”, a silhouetted guitar trills as bassist Bobby Burg and drummer Theo Katsaounis (both Joan of Arc mainstays) lay down a simple rhythm. Screeching, distorted cello provided by Chicago improvised music mainstay Fred Lonberg-Holm splays out in the background, while Kinsella groans out interlocking mantras.
The near 14 minutes of “The Bird’s Nest Wrapped Around the Security Camera” starts and stops on Katsaounis’ stick-clacking and snare-snapping, handfuls of separate movements wrapped around that simple percussive pattern. On one particularly arresting segment, Melina Ausikaitis’ wordless cooing encounters a warped rejoinder from distorted guitar. Later, Kinsella’s vocals crackle into the fray, elongated lines about window washers and abandon pulsing like a raw wound.
The counterculture barbershop quartet of closer “Jury Duty” explains societal “emptiness” in a bouncy round, denouncing the city’s “leading men of business, celebrated personalities, its mayor and its athletes.” It’s the rare a cappella tune in which you’ll hear the words “adequately” and “systematized,” and one that will ask you to ”enumerate your rumination.” This track epitomizes the album: an intriguing if uniquely disjointed experiment, and one that likely benefits quite a bit from familiarity with Charles Reznikoff’s work or seeing its theatrical accompaniment.
Essential Tracks: “Amelia”, “Mosaic of Bolts”