Art Rock: What the Hell is it?

By Hale Melvin

What is art rock? It’s an open-ended question, but just like Justice Potter Stewart’s view of pornography, where “I know it when I see it”, I recognize a heterogenous assortment of carefully constructed sonic geographies to be worthy of that Art-Rock label.

Yeasayer is a band that is familiar with complex, stimulating music that successfully weaves different genres, oftentimes in the same song. Their latest album – Amen and Goodbye feels like a culmination and (final?) refinement of their previous work. Some things are familiar – a slightly orientalist vibe, as if you were a soldier in the French Legion wandering a Maghrebi market bazaar while on a little bit of hash and lot of Bordeaux.

However, some things are a bit different. The orchestral production, the vaguely Sgt. Pepper’s-esque aura, the radio-friendly harmonies. As of 2018, there’s no indication that Yeasayer is breaking up, but so many of the songs have a distinct emotional “finality” about them that it feels like a graceful send-off. Emphasis on graceful, like the last campfire song before bed and the inevitable morning.

The opener – Daughters of Cain is an elegant, beautiful harmony driven piece that abruptly yields to the second track – I am Chemistry, which is slightly more familiar territory, it has that middle-eastern lute-sound guitar riff close to the “front” of the sound.

By the third track – Silly Me, an unexpectedly bouncy, danceable song, you know that this album is measurably different from their previous works. Subsequent tracks, Half-Asleep and Dead Sea Scrolls are closest thing to filler-tracks on the album. Still enjoyable but lacking the kind of grandiosity or sweeping melody found on the rest of the album. That micro-trend of relative mediocrity is finished by the album highlight of Prophecy Gun. A simple, repetitive bass line begins and is slowly joined by a hypnotizing pairing of vocals, keyboard and other secondary melodies. The happy-sad emotionality of it, in all its glorious ambiguousness, is fully realized in this amazing track. Like a classic Irish wake that is half-mourning, half celebration, the beauty is in its undivided balance between the two halves. They aren’t chopped up and seperated but entirely contained within the overall structure.

Prophecy Gun also marks the midway point of the album, and is the perfect introduction to the more interesting second half.

Divine Simulacrum, Child Prodigy, and Gerson’s Whistle are all excellent tracks, but the real highlight in the later end of the second half is the triad of Uma, Cold Night, and the semi-track of Amen & Goodbye. Those three, in combination with each other, are just such a pretty, internally coherent in their respective and collective parts that the experience of the listening to it feels like a joy, a half-hidden secret that you are lucky enough to have been invited to partake in. The second of the three – Cold Night, pairs a message we can all relate to – a death/suicide of a close friend or relative that you have mixed feelings about delivers without divulging too much and is the most satisfying song on the whole album.

Finally, amen and goodbye, which isn’t so much a standalone track as it is a coda to Cold Night closes the album, and a close to the night as one would feel looking up at the stars next to a dying campfire out in the country.

Advertisements

The Surfrajettes Vs. Britney Spears

By Hale Melvin

What makes a good cover?

For songs, I think a good cover is when the band takes an existing melody, remakes it in their own likeness, delivering something new and familiar at the same time. That’s why they’re rare. Many covers just take a song that is old enough to be re-marketing to a new audience, but there are a few that rise above the noise.

Dear Prudence – Siouxsie and the Banshees (Beatles cover)

Never let me down again – Smashing Pumpkins (Depeche Mode cover)

If it makes you happy – Fidlar (Sheryl Crow cover)

Are standouts, but so is Toxic by the Sufrajettes.

Yes, that Toxic – the Britney Spears song from 2004. You probably remember the video too, Britney was an airline stewardess and there was dancing. It was overplayed for a solid 18 months.

Fast forward 14 years and you get this gem of a cover.

There are no vocals, just a large dose of mid-60’s cool that ought to be the soundtrack of a traveling scene in a movie.

Specifically, traveling in the vast California/Nevada/Arizona desert. You know, that weird little corner of America where the refuse of Vegas and Los Angeles spread out over a seemingly endless expanse of sun-baked nothingness, complimented by dramatic scenery and practically free real estate.

Listening a second time, the scene comes more into focus. You’re driving through the Mojave. Only the distant mountains, cacti and the road fill your view, but you definitely are going somewhere and avoiding someone familiar, because you know that they are toxic.

“Blood Hot”, by Tess Parks: 100% Nugget Bucket Approved

TPKS

By Hale Melvin

There’s something interesting about music strongly influenced by a time and place, but which exists outside of it. With this album, and Tess Parks in general, it’s late 60’s acid rock. While it’s 50 years removed from that zeitgeist, it’s a further distillation of it.

Somewhere between the late 60’s and today, production techniques got better and singers like Tess Parks came into existence.

What separates this album from the rest of the acid-rock revival pack really is Tess’s voice. Her guitar playing is there for sure, but her voice is the x-factor that takes it to the next level. It’s not a conventionally beautiful voice. It’s raspy, has a limited range, but damn it’s got a lot of soul. It’s the type of voice that ONLY works for the music associated with it, but for us right now that’s perfectly fine.

The opener – “Somedays” sets the tone for the entire album, you essentially know what you’re getting yourself into within the first 30 seconds. It’s mid tempo. There are handclaps. There is singing but it’s just melodic enough to not be spoken word. The lyrics are there but it sort of blends into the milieu. A little bit of reverb + delay and some droning bass lines and you’ve got yourself an album.

Blood Hot isn’t just reiterations of the same formula. The fifth track, “Stick Around”, breaks the mold with a more heartfelt delivery, strings, slower overall tempo, lack of distortion and for the first time and the storytelling nature of songs come into the forefront as definite visual is being constructed. Its a mid-album highlight.

Then things return to the formula, albeit with a little twist. The next number, “Open Your Mind” has a distinct Spacemen 3/Jesus and Mary Chain vibe to it. Something about the the fuzz and background guitar track is just super late 80’s British psychedelic revival.

“Goodnight Love” is another down-tempo acoustic number, and “This Time Next Year” has a moderately intense build-up crescendo but you’re still operating within a familiar context.

The album closer, “Love Around,” shifts the formula just a little bit and you realize “oh yeah, this was produced by Anton Newcombe”. The key difference is the drum beat is a little more active and the guitar has that unmistakable Newcombe style distortion paired with that Newcombe style melody that 90% of his songs sound like, which is a good thing.

Album Review: Juju by Siouxie and The Banshees

By Hale Melvin

siouxsie

Before Hot Topic, being goth was difficult. It was a full time job. You had to go to a few vintage boutiques and modify your own clothes. Your aesthetic was the result of meticulous layering and careful arrangements.

Zines were these local, highly treasured artifacts. Records, when you could find them, were the centerpiece of your life.

Goth has many many sub-genres, but Siouxsie and the Banshees transcends them all and their album JuJu is what solidifies Siouxsie Sioux as the queen of Goth.

The stringy, dangling notes of the intro Spellbound bring you in. You’re in for something different. It’s heavy without being loud, or all that fast. The melodies shift quickly and the pounding drums mix with the jangling guitars for something that feels aptly spellbinding.

It’s an affect that continues for the entire album. The track Halloween attacks with this unnerving hypnotic riff punctuated by complimentarily aggressive choruses that manage to up the ante.

The following track, Monitor, is the hardest of the album. Goth is a sub-genre of Post-Punk after all. Siouxsie Sioux’s voice mixes passion with despair and blend perfectly with the metallic guitar riffs.

Another highlight of the album, Arabian Nights, showcases her impressive vocals better than any other, which float above and intensify the tribal drumming and swirling guitars.

The album closer, Voodoo Dolly’s rising tension builds in waves, as the disjointed guitar rises and falls with the lyrics of creep into being. A dark frenzy reaches a dizzying crescendo with the Siouxsie Sioux repeating “Listen” over and over again. Which you definitely should if you are ready for some intensity. This unique album was certainly artfully crafted, but perhaps too morose for casual listening.