Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Before Today (4AD, 2010)
Ariel Pink is a name many will be familiar with thanks to his series of home-recorded solo releases on Animal Collective's Paw Tracks label. These recordings have had an influence wildly at odds with their scale and ambition, informing critics as much as musicians (spurious categories such as hypnagogig pop seem to link back to Pink). In spite of this wide-ranging impact, Pink is making 'Before Today', his first album made with a full band, a clean slate. It's the first time he has recorded with the explicit intention of releasing the results to a sizeable audience. As such, it's predictably a cleaner, more carefully orchestrated affair than his previous work, although it retains much of the lo-fi, ramshackle charm that has gained him considerable support and acclaim. It successfully both defines and improves his distinctive aesthetic.
Much of this aesthetic involves making a case for the much derided radio music with which Pink may have grown up - the likes of Hall & Oates, Foreigner, Christopher Cross, Todd Rundgren and 10cc. The two most obvious examples of this here are 'Round and Round' and 'Can't Hear My Eyes'. Both have that soft touch drum sound and the enveloping synth pads characteristic of the early-80s (before stadium rock and the Power Station sound took over). The latter has a quite ludicrous slinky saxophone solo. These tracks don't sound like direct facsimiles of that era though. Pink takes something of the slick smoothness and syrupy melodic sensibility and refashions it for his own, more ambiguous purposes. Whilst Pink's melodies are straightforwardly infectious (whether consciously or not, the exuberant chorus of 'Round and Round' owes a debt to Deacon Blue's 'Fergus Sings The Blues'), the music is more confusing and ghostly. This is not just a nostalgia trip - but rather something a little more radical. It's a remodelling of the past.
Pink's role models are not all stereotypically unfashionable. 'Before Today' ends with 'Revolution's A Lie', which features a moody, pulsating bassline that hints at Joy Division or The Cure, two bands whose influence has never really diminished in spite of the risk of cliched miserabilism. Again, Pink makes it all much more warped and otherworldly though. This sounds like a hallucination or a nightmare, rather than any very real personal suffering. At the other end, the album is ushered in with the alluring 'Hot Body Rub', which seems to mesh 2-Tone saxophones with a mechanistic rhythm reminiscent of Neu!. Pink's new wave fascinations continue to emerge throughout - on the frazzled 'Little Wig' and the propulsive 'Bright Lit Blue Skies' particularly.
Pink has an offbeat sense of humour that results in faintly ludicrous song titles such as 'Beverley Kills' and 'Butt-House Blondies'. This also takes him into more surreal territory, such as on 'Menopause Man'. This is a rather peculiar swampy ballad that, perhaps questionably, conflates gender confusion with sexuality ('rape me, castrate me, make me gay').
Pink has little fear of the unusual, the bizarre or the frankly daft, both lyrically and musically. This means that 'Before Today' could be either a collection of elaborately constructed jokes - or it could be a brave work of near-genius. The way the absurd dual fuzz guitars of 'L'estat' slip into a lopsided swing groove would be nonsensical in almost anyone else's hands, but Pink and his band make it sound not just planned but somehow appropriate. Context is everything here of course. It's the way Pink transforms his reference points into something strange, hypnotic and utterly irresistible that makes him convincing.