REVIEW: Face Tattoo – Art Vandelay

Art Vandelay
Face Tattoo
Unimpressive Records; 2012

The strangely edifying thing about Art Vandelay’s grey-skied, tongue-only-partially-in-cheek, depress-o art-house rap, is that the MC responsible for setting the gloomy table (that would be one Ricky Pharoe) is loathe to admit the rock you — and all your fellow busy-body, oxygen-depleting friends — crawled out from under is probably the one located right next door to his own. In a musical genre where the primary goal of every MC is obtaining as much genuflection as is required to begin believing in one’s own hype, it’s nice to come across an outfit like Art Vandelay. One that relishes basking in a deafeningly melancholic solace, preaching to each empty and occupied space that everyone’s shit does, in fact, stink. Human nature is a motherfucker, isn’t it?

At least that’s what I took away from the crew’s most recent project, Face Tattoo, which can be had for freebies at the group’s Bandcamp page. Likewise their previous release, 2011’s They’ve Got My Number Down At The Post Office, which saw Ricky and production partner Mack Formway preaching to no choir in particular about dark days and wanton human nature from the comfort of their own raggedy sofas. Actually, “preaching” is probably the wrong word as those in religious affiliation often find themselves the victims of lyrical beatdowns (see here: “Vitiligo” and it’s blasphemously comedic video).

Then again, the degradation opined upon throughout Face Tattoo is not exclusive to human spirituality. Art Vandelay hesitate even in placing their faith in empirical evidence, concluding on “What Is Matter?” that the only sure thing in scientific experiment is the addition of further questions. Pharoe is an expert at deconstructing both the questions that drive human exploration and the minutiae of a daily stationary existence. And that’s before he even tackles the kinetic doomsday machinations of crooked government and broken social systems (“Presidents And Prime Ministers”). Ultimately, the man is revealed as an MC trapped inside his own head, the hip-hop medium being his only reliable form of release and, dare I say, salvation.

The dense and vital soundtrack to Pharoe’s firing synapses is Mack Formway’s well-executed production. Guitar-laden sonic frameworks, moody samples and rugged breakbeats are combined to darkly atmospheric (yet often traditional) effect. This is not top-down, cruising-in-the-ride summer music. It’s far more pensive than that. “Hey Zeus!”, for example, is a sort of post-Grunge futurist meets El-P dance track. That might mean little to nothing on paper but in execution it sounds unlike anything currently spinning in Seattle hip-hop.

Art Vandelay’s threat of branding us with face tattoos finds its genesis in Pharoe’s standard MC desire of blemishing rap marks with his proverbial dopeness (which he possesses in spades). But it also seems to reference the consigned shroud that we and our neighbors persist to carry on under. Beneath all of Face Tattoo’s spoiled ink lies the notion that the world has sadly vacated the strive for something better. That maybe if the human race just moved the hell out of its own way, things wouldn’t be so constantly fucked up.

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DOWNLOAD: They’ve Got My Number Down at the Post Office – Art Vandelay

Click album cover to D/L at Bandcamp.

Ricky Pharoe gets up on the weird side of the bed for this one. Re-monikered as Art Vandelay, They’ve Got My Number Down at the Post Office finds the MC and producer Mark Formway making antithetical rap music in the grand/odd tradition of their anti-establishmentarianist (is that a word?) brethren Black Lab Productions.

Formway builds thick, layered compositions from distorted low end, electric guitar riffs, muted high-hats, and idiosyncratic vocal samples from the likes of Ghostface Killah, Louis Armstrong and, of course, characters from Seinfeld. The producer often lets his beats build, setting the sonic tone for Pharoe’s cynical realism. The rapper is anti-record label, anti-financial institution, anti-justice system, pretty much anti-everything, really, which in the end amounts to…what exactly?

The MC’s bleak nihilism can be a bit of a downer, but it’s his wicked sense of humor and expert social observations that make They’ve Got My Number one of the most refreshing 206 releases of the year. I’m an eternal optimist, that’s just my nature; but there’s something to be said for allowing the morose to run through your brain synapses from time to time. It keeps us glass-half-full types honest, really.

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