As a few words of warning, Art Block has a particular type of vocal that lends itself to singer-songwriter tunes and maybe some types of indie, but won’t be everyone’s cup of tea – or to be more accurate, gin, served on a china plate with an antique brass fork instead of a cup. In case you didn’t pick up what I meant there, I mean it’s weird for the sensibilities of most.
In a lower register, Art Block floats between Lou Reed, David Byrne, and Jagger – classic examples of solid songwriters and performers who had absolutely no business on a microphone, but got in there anyway. It’s an acquired taste that sees the rawness and vulnerability of the vocal overpower the lack of finesse. So, I’ll try to avoid dwelling on the odd missed note and questionable melody; that’s not what this music is about. Instead, when listening, try to feel what Art Block is trying to get across. You’ll find the vocal stylings a lot more manageable that way. Who knows, you might even enjoy it.
The title track starts off with a falsetto I believe only exists because the song is too short. I know, I just mentioned I wouldn’t be dwelling on that, but this will be an exception because I can make exceptions, because I am the second coming of the lord. By all means, cut out the beginning and have a decent sub 2 and a half minute song. I actually like Los Feliz, but finding myself skipping 15 seconds in every time I put it on is a tell-tale sign that something’s up. Even dropping the intro down an octave like the reprise version as an alternative to cutting it entirely would be an idea, so the notes are remotely achievable. The rest of the song actually works for me. It’s a nice little reflective piece that got me all teary-eyed and nostalgic about somewhere I’d never been and a time I never lived in. If you think that makes me a pansy, you’re probably right, but you’re also probably dead inside.
The one thing I know about Polly is that my girlfriend hated it. We were listening to Art Block’s second tune when, mid-chorus, she asked me kindly to “Turn it the fuck off.” and shook her head vigorously with a grimace. I think that was a bit much, but she’s feeling a little under the weather, so I let it slide. The guitar work is fine – not passable, fine like a southern gentleman. The writing is spot-on, as is the arrangement, but I found the hats irritating – not as irritating as Laura found the voice, but they grated a little. Saying someone can sing like Jagger is a bit of a back-handed compliment. On the one hand, he’s fucking Jagger, but on the other, even Ronnie Wood dodges the question when he’s asked if Mick is a good singer. So, with that in mind, this song sounds more than a little like Jagger.
Angel could have come straight off any Talking Heads album. It’s foreboding, but it’s also charming. It’s not the most memorable track on the EP, but there’s nothing to complain about. It’s tidy and it probably has the neatest vocal on the release.
The Lake is beautiful. It’s taken the looming darkness from Angel and run with it. It’s haunting in its simplicity and its performance. It’s one of those songs that stop you in your tracks for a moment, just so you can fully appreciate it and take in the depth just below the surface.
When We Were Flying High is where he lost me. It’s vocal masturbation from a lacklustre vocalist, which I imagine has an equivalent somewhere else. Oh, I’ve got it… this song is not quite like a quadriplegic trying to do Olympic gymnastics, but it is like me trying to do a backflip out of an oak tree – theoretically possible, but never a good idea in practise.
Back to the Art Block vocal, we’ve still only covered half of what I wanted to say about it. I think there’s a diminishing return when it comes to that unrefined, unpolished feel, when charming becomes utterly eye-clawingly unbearable. The points at which ‘Los Feliz’ reaches this seem to coincide with the inadvisable tackling of high notes. There are the occasional flashes of Bono and the Killers’ Brandon Flowers in there, but as a general rule, don’t sing high unless you can hold the tune. There’s raggedly loveable and then, there’s delusional. However harsh that sounds, it really isn’t that big a deal to most inde-anas and motherfolk-ers, but as far as I have my say in what I listen to, When We Were Flying High in particular, won’t be on the list.
It’s a shame, because the songwriting is better than decent. Los Feliz is a strong offering, but listening to Art Block stumble through some of the vocals makes me wish he had a friend with a tune in his or her head – or a remote for my latop so I didn’t have to get up to hit pause and take a shot every time I winced. In the interests of fairness, I also do that with Muse, but at least when Matt Bellamy is whinging into a microphone, it’s the whinging that annoys me, not the bum notes.
It’s a breath of air, whether or not you deem it fresh depends on whether or not you get hung-up on the obvious shortcoming. Yes, I’m well aware that I said I wouldn’t focus on the vocal and I lied, but sometimes, there is just no escaping what’s right in front of you. That said, I wouldn’t completely dismiss something for one shortcoming, either. The thing is, that while there are missed notes in there, none of them outweigh the quality of the songwriting and the overall feel of the EP. I, for one, would rather hear him miss the occasional low note or the more frequent high note than hear the imprint of an auto-tuner’s meaty bollocks all over an album, track after track – yes, I’m looking at you, literally every single pop song that’s come out since that T-Pain chap got onto a boat six years ago.