Whether you consider yourself to be a Kinsella fan or not, if there’s one thing that anyone familiar with the Chicago-centred musical legacy knows it’s that any act associated with the Kinsella family is both intermittently interchangeable and fiercely fluid. Stopping short of calling Joan Of Arc and its band members musically incestuous, it’s certainly fair to say that where one connected band begins and another ends is often hazy, as members – both of the Kinsella clan and the bands – switch and swap and band names morph and mutate at an equally confusing rate.

Throughout Joan Of Arc’s 16-year existence and their staggering summation of 15 albums the band’s line up has been as changeable as their time signatures and as confusing as their characteristically confounding song titles. Whether with Joan Of Arc’s touring-only incarnation Make Believe, with slightly stripped back bands like Owls or the supergroup status of Everyoned, Tim Kinsella has always successfully managed to trickle the same semblance of melodic progression into all his musical projects and Life Like is no exception.

With Joan Of Arc’s ever-changing cast of musicians has come a series of very different sounding records. After playing in Owls, Cap N Jazz and Ghosts & Vodka Life Like sees the return of guitarist Victor Villareal to the Kinsella fold, injecting his own detailed guitar work that gently picks its way beneath Kinsella’s inimitably raw and slightly abrasive trademark vocals. Another long-term collaboration is also manifested with Steve Albini returning to production duties. When these two human fixtures are placed alongside Kinsella, bassist Bobby Burg and drummer Theo Katsaounis separate elements of what has made Joan Of Arc so special in the past come together to create the band’s most focused and accomplished album in a long time.

Just a quick glance through the track-listing reveals the theme of life and living that weaves its way throughout the album’s own lifecycle. Indeed this is not even the first time that the band have played on the word ‘live’, as their deliberately misleading 1999 album title Live in Chicago 1999 highlights. Eschewing their usual penchant for long and cryptic titles, on Life Like short titles such as ‘Love Life’, ‘Night Life Style’, ‘Life Force’, ‘Still Life’ and the suitably named closing track ‘After Life’ hit the lyrical theme home – it’s not a concept album, but the notion of living and life are certainly something that Joan Of Arc is keen to explore.

Beginning with the album’s only lengthy title ‘I Saw The Messed Blinds Of My Generation’ Life Like starts its journey with a mostly instrumental 10-minute song, which splits into three separate stages. Yet this is a far cry from the stretching passages of music akin to The Gap. Gone are the electronic touches of the past, and in their place a more minimalist, stripped back approach more akin to that of Owls’ sole self-titled album. It’s also similar in its accessibility, as each song seamlessly segues from one to another, incorporating new ideas in each, yet leaving enough room for listeners to appreciate each nuance of sound.

Elsewhere on the album ‘Like Minded’ beautifully intertwines soft, rippling passages of music with sudden bursts of intense energy and chaotic caterwauling. ‘Life Force’ establishes itself as an interlude with its short presence in the centre of the album, its repetitive vocal refrain of “Let’s cut each other’s strings” sung surprisingly delicately over a single guitar melody. ‘Night Life Style’ follows with its powerfully built beginning that blends rattling snare shakes with Villarreal’s trademark tinkling guitar work. From the first listen this is a track that stands out, and after every play its intricacies and lyrics progressively manifest themselves as the song’s crashing apex continues to develop and reveal itself as one of the album’s more accomplished moments.

Where ‘Night Life Style’ ends the equally brilliant ‘Howdy Pardoner’ begins. With its interchanging soft then solid instrumentation this track continues to grow as the glistening guitar parts guide its listeners with every play. Later, the syncopated rhythmic beginnings of ‘Still Life’ makes way for Kinsella’s beautifully painted claim that “A band aid is an accessory” while the relative quietude of the backing instrumentation and rattling percussion further illustrates the band’s multi-dimensions and surprisingly renewed attention to detail.

Stripped of Albini’s controlled chaos that encircles Life Like’s core, the record ends with the appropriately titled ‘After Life’ and a slow burning series of group chants that echo in an anthemic manner. Given its ominous title it’s hard not to imagine these choral chants as knells, and as such the album ends on a slightly sinister note, completely separated from the rest of Life Like’s comparatively uplifting offerings. It may be a slightly removed and portentous ending, yet the sporadic squealing from Villarreal’s frenzied guitar at the album’s very demise reverses this bleakness and turns it into another of Joan Of Arc’s trademark accumulations of noise. Although ‘After Life’s original austerity couldn’t paint a less accurate picture of the album as a whole entity, both musically and lyrically Life Like is Joan Of Arc’s finest and most cohesive body of work in years. As the band’s own life-line continues to inevitably grow, change and develop it is exciting to see its current incarnation mature into a tighter and more articulate formation, yet still retain the rawness and unfaltering fluidity that has kept fans captivated since the band’s very beginnings.

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