THE MOUNTAIN GOATS

"We Shall All Be Healed"

4AD

JOAN OF ARC

"Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney,

Mark Twain . . . "

Polyvinyl

Today's indie-label singer-songwriters don't show any interest in emulating yesterday's folkie bards or soft-rock troubadours. Still, they are entirely capable of performing a spare, strummed-guitar ballad. It's just that such "groups" as California's Mountain Goats (whose only full-time member is John Darnielle) and Chicago's Joan of Arc (which fundamentally is just Tim Kinsella) might follow that tune with a ragged rocker or an electronic abstraction.

A longtime lo-fi musicmaker, Darnielle has recently begun working with producers, sidemen and professional engineers. The Mountain Goats' "We Shall All Be Healed" was supervised by John Vanderslice, who shares this week's Black Cat bill with Darnielle. Although most of the songs feature a rhythm section, and sometimes keyboards and violin, the effect is far from slick.

Darnielle's ragged, emphatic vocals -- and titles such as "Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into the Water, Triumph of" -- retain his eccentric appeal.

Perhaps it means something that two of this album's most memorable songs, the playfully anthemic "Letter From Belgium" and the stately, John Caleish "Your Belgian Things," both mention the same apparently extraneous country.

The title of Joan of Arc's new album promises social commentary, and maybe it's in there somewhere. Mostly, though, "Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain . . . " is too aimless to hit any polemical targets. Aside from a cascading array of spoken names that ends by seemingly indicting a corporation that's active in the music biz, this disjointed set's viewpoint is more absurdist than ideological. Such neo-folkie ditties as "Apocalypse Politics" nestle between jazzy, piano-driven passages and blasts of machine-generated noise. Devotees may enjoy excavating such offbeat charmers as the music-hall-inspired "Queasy Lynn" and the synth-pop shuffle " '80s Dance Parties Most of All," but for the casual listener "Joan, Dick, Mark . . . " is probably too much work.

-- Mark Jenkins

Appearing Monday at the Black Cat with John Vanderslice. * To hear a free Sound Bite from the Mountain Goats, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8125; to hear Joan of Arc, press 8126. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)