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Tony Conrad - Joan of Arc

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Artist: Tony Conrad

Album: Joan of Arc

Label: Table of the Elements

Review date: Nov. 26, 2006


Every sort of organ sounds different, but every other sort of organ sounds the same compared to the pump organ. It gets its breath through pedal-powered air pressure, and its sound is warped and wobbly, trembling and inconsistent. Itís the moodiest of all organs. Once an accompanier of hymns and a visible presence in American living rooms, it was already scarce by the time Naomi Barfieldís exemplary long-player The Old Pump Organ appeared in the í50s.

A decade later, itís the instrument that minimalist avatar Tony Conrad chose for his musical contributions to Piero Heliczerís í68 art film Joan of Arc. (That same year, Conrad starred in Ira Cohenís psychedelic classic Invasion of the Thunderbolt Pagoda, a flick for which he clearly feels a greater affinity; Joan of Arcís cover is actually a still from Pagoda, and Heliczer isnít even mentioned in the thank-yous.) In some cases, the nicest thing one can say about a soundtrack is that it ďtranscends soundtrack-y-nessĒ (or perhaps something similar but less awkward). In this case, Conrad doesnít need to transcend anything. His art is psychic aikido. Your brain does most of the heavy lifting.

As in most of Conradís work, the pace is glacial. This disc can sustain one mood, one tone, until it plumbs the full range of human emotion. But the pump organ lends this piece a unique spookiness. It often sounds like a record thatís warped or badly pressed. Ten minutes into a mantra, the organ threatens to lunge into some other mode altogether. Such are the hazards of meditation when youíre defined by your imperfections. Joan of Arc is never fully in the dark and never finds the light, but drifts slowly and eerily in between, over the course of a disorienting, exhilarating hour.

Itís impossible to measure Tony Conradís lifetime impact on underground music; if your reference points include the Velvets, Sonic Youth, John Cage or any other musical entity thatís ever exuded a certain negative, willfully monotonous, undeniably spellbinding cool, heís simply the guy. Whether or not Joan of Arc ranks with his ďessentialĒ work sort of depends. But as it channels Conradís distinctive hypnosis technique with one of the most lovably unsteady instruments available, itís both a glorious mindfuck and an informative study in contrast.

By Emerson Dameron

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