Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Music Review: Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Before Today

"I’m not sure the full effect of Before Today can properly register in 2010 without the critical deployment of a little bit of historical context, so let’s back track for a second. I saw Ariel Pink and his band the Haunted Graffiti perform live sometime in the summer of 2007, and it was one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen. I honestly wasn’t expecting anything less, as by that point Ariel Pink had already built up a reputation as one of the most frustratingly singular artists of the mid-aughts. Adding to the retrospective perplexity of the evening was the fact that Beach House opened that show, drawing maybe two dozen onlookers before the Haunted Graffiti tripled that by the time they took the stage. Which is to say that the Ariel Pink name has always carried with it enough curious caché —at least amongst Los Angelenos—to attract a decent crowd, most of whom are probably hoping to catch a glimpse of this guy’s ever-elusive genius.

Suffice it to say this didn’t exactly happen that night. In fact, the set mostly consisted of drawn-out amateur riffage over a series of Pink’s mumbled incantations (if he played “For Kate I Wait”, I sure didn’t hear it, and that’s one of the only reasons outside of Beach House that I even showed up). All of which makes his first proper studio album, Before Today, such a welcome surprise. Even the best of Pink’s prior material—say, The Doldrums, a kind-of modern lo-fi magna carta—was so frustrating in its adherence to the indie ethos that many of its standout tracks failed to register above the din of crusty-eyed tape hiss. Despite its limitations, however, this was capital I-indie: music with little if any chance to ever break out of its self-imposed obscurity (and proud of it). Anyone currently experiencing whatever people are now calling “lo-fi” via this recent wave of bedroom pop artists would do well to take a listen to some of Pink’s early stuff—it’ll put hair on your chest.

Paradoxically, it’s this very crop of modern lo-fi enthusiasts that have arguably brought about this very belated shot at indie stardom for Pink. So while interest in this kind of nostalgia-smudged indie-pop is perhaps at its peak, I nevertheless hesitate to label Pink as an unknowing pioneer of that god awful micro-genre known as chillwave. Not even taking into account that this music doesn’t even really carry many traces of the style, it’s still a slippery slope when talking about influence. But if one is going to chalk up Pink as a prescient boy wonder of bedroom pop, you could just as easily extend the line backwards from Guided by Voices to Sebadoh to Wingtip Sloat to Tall Dwarves (to name just a few). Instead, I can now prefer to think of the Neon Indians of the world as the necessary evils enabling the Haunted Graffiti a proper recording studio and an environment where Pink can attempt to harness all this pent up inspiration into his first proper production.

And wouldn’t you know it, when finally given the opportunity, he totally nails it. Besides this being far and away the best collection of songs Pink has ever written, it’s also the first album that rewards the listener in equal measure to what he or she would normally have needed to bring to Pink’s fascinating and highly inscrutable world of pop as a prerequisite. He may have cleaned-up his look and (mostly) dropped the provocative shtick, but this is the first Ariel Pink album where his pure love for the art of making music shines though just as bright as his art-damaged outsider persona. So if the trade off for a song as flabbergastingly great as “Round and Round” is the loss of a few purist points, then so be it. Pink’s love for 80s AM cheese-pop and wedding band pomp is still in full force, though Before Today is easily as much Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) as it is Waterloo. In fact, I’d argue that this is more of glam coming-out than any sort of post-disco romp, though I doubt Pink worries himself much with these kinds of designations, which is one of the reasons this album is so much fun to listen to (another thing I’ve never really had the opportunity to say about his music).

After a brief warm-up with “Hot Body Rub” , the album kicks off proper with an infectious cover of the Rockin’ Ramrods’ 60s surf obscurity “Bright Lit Blue Skies”. It’s a pretty faithful run-through, but what elevates the track and thus provides the perfect gateway for the remainder of the record is the song’s opening line—“What is this thing I call my mind?”—which coincides so well with the fragile artiste persona that Pink has cultivated that it hardly matters if it represents a proper reinterpretation or not. And it only gets better from there. The prog-pop dalliances of “L’estat (Acc. to the Widow’s Maid)” slide so fluidly and giddily between movements that it’s a wonder Pink didn’t compartmentalize and simply split the melodies off into separate tracks, while the B-52s lurch of “Friday Night (Nevermore)” runs the anticipation levels to uneasy heights before “Round and Round” unfurls with the year’s most show-stopping, coke-addled disco-pop hook. Again, the track progresses as a kind of suite, with each wonderful verse melody skipping along nonchalantly, probably in realization that when that chorus hits again, all bets are off. In short: a self-contained masterpiece.

With all the great individual moments though, it’s still nice to see Pink buckle down and sequence this record into an agreeable running order. I already mentioned the quasi intro track, but Pink also bridges his two late-album highlights—the lite-FM worthy “Can’t Hear My Eyes” and the sexually disquieting “Menopause Man”—with a hallucinatory instrumental entitled “Reminiscences”. The charms of The Doldrums notwithstanding, it all finally seems like part of some grander scheme, as opposed to a pieced together Memorex dump. It’s not a perfect record—the butt-rock soloing on the otherwise self-explanatory “Butt-House Blondies” may move a bit too far to the left on the irony scale, while the 6-minute “Little Wig” finds the Haunted Graffiti doing their best Spider from Mars impression for about 3 minutes too long—but anyone expecting a tight power-pop document from someone as prone to mischief as Pink has already misjudged the ceiling here. The fact remains, Before Today may be the closest Ariel Pink ever gets to perfection. And besides, all the warts and one-offs of those early records were one of the things that made them so fascinating. Here’s an album, however, that you’ll not only want to hear again, but need to hear again. And what you’ll hear, finally, is Ariel Pink." [82/100] [Published 07.06.10]

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