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.

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The Fortune Cookies Project and Santai

Fortune cookiesPhoto Credit: Michael Thomas

I met Michael Thomas, a musician and exchange student from the Netherlands, at the end of last semester at AU. I was heading out of Katzen after cleaning out the sculpture studio and disassembling my final project when I saw Michael in the hallway, observing the remnants of my installation. He told me about this new musical project he was working on/New year’s resolution to record 12 songs or so.

Then he explained that he was interested in remodelling the hallway nook for the set of his first music video. Excitedly, and flattered of course, I approved. I left the black cubes/shelves on the wall and left the rest up to him. When I came back the next day to finish cleaning, I didn’t think I’d run into Michael, but we ended up filming the special messages(corresponding with each song), some of which I wrote in chalk. Michael is a talented guitarist/songwriter in the band, Santai. I like what they do, in that they combine textured instrumentation with thought-provoking lyrics in a variety of musical genres/styles.

This is their facebook band page.  Here is the facebook page for The Fortune Cookies Project. And, this is the official Santai website.  

“If you eat a box of fortune cookies, anything is possible”

Before The Transformation:

My idea was simply to create a space– amidst the stress of the end of the semester–where students could quiet down, relax, doodle(in chalk) on the shelf, listen to records and flip through books and magazines. The thumbnail below was the initial idea for a bookshelf, but it sort of evolved into an entire little environment of its own.