Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti
Every time he shows up for dinner, he gets served as the main course. That’s the way it’s been with Ariel Pink since I first heard about him in 2005. People seemed happy to feast on his presence but pass on his music. The back-alley labels (back when having Animal Collective as a patron made you an oddball cousin), the button-pushing artwork, his muted strangeness in the music press and the overseas praise in the U.K. all made him into a distant and fascinating creature. But no one wanted to hear him. Pink’s thick and bloody West Coast blend of ’70s and ’80s lo-fi, bizarro pop scores gave people a peak back into the world of gross-out experimentation typified by Psychic TV and Coil at a moment when people wanted to cuddle up with Arcade Fire.
So while recovering from an illness, I got a chance to read some of the early notices for his 4AD debut, Before Today. Lo and behold, Professor Pink is a genius! The innovator of chillwave! A mentor to Wavves and Surfer Blood and the owner of one of the best plastic soul records since Hall and Oates took to hocking their product on QVC. It seems that, periodically, there’s a need for a low-key originator who launched a thousand ships but only enjoyed the critical rewards much later. It gives a musical trend deeper roots as well as its own sense of mythology.
Playing into that paradigm, Before Today might be the best record Pink’s put out but no one should really be under the impression that’s it’s philosophically that much different from his other releases. The biggest stylistic difference is probably his first acknowledgments of alternative rock in the same sardonic scrutiny he used to reserve for game show themes and porno music. “Revolution’s A Lie” places the Factory Records sound towards the mordantly ridiculous while “Butt-House Blondies” does a quick head fake towards Sonic Youth territory before using its excesses to crush the song like a tin can.
Like those underground rock denizens, Pink’s already spent time in the low budget trenches and he’s moved upwards. Previous Haunted Graffiti efforts have sounded like analog cassettes that were worn down to the magnetic strip and possibly recorded over Bad Company bootlegs. The added expense and personnel employed is showy but not disheartening. Within the Peter Frampton melodies of “Beverly Kills” and “Can’t Hear My Eyes” is the same layered ’70s easy listening pastiche he’s crafted in the past seen through a sharper pair of glasses. Pink’s voice has changed as well from an unpredictable array of odd and challenging grunts and falsettos to something that embeds itself more readily to each song’s mutant harmony. His restraint and consistent sweetness on perpetually growing melodic lines of “Round and Round” are something new and more daring in its own way. By cutting the last strings of his detachment and giving himself over to his written work the way Donna Summer grew into her own light disco sincerity.
Though sometimes there’s still the feeling that with Pink, one’s watching one of those fictional bands that used to appear on crime dramas and sitcoms before groups like the Breeders would agree to do “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” There was always unspoken acknowledgment that, in say the “Remington Steele” universe, this is what people dance to at nightclubs. We’d go along with how ridiculous and dulcet everything sounded because our own expectations could seem just as shallow and self-obsessed. Haunted Graffiti always made for a handy moniker because it embraced the unreality of how we arrange and where we place music according to our own priorities. Pink’s great vision is in setting moments of auditory ordinariness at cross purposes with one another until something gross and interesting happens. While his older material saw those possibilities in mass media and nostalgic elevator music that never melt away, Before Today makes it’s home in the average record collection and radio stations that are just as deathless.