MUSIC Ladies and gentlemen, meet the real Ariel Pink.
The Los Angeles musician’s first few 2004-06 releases on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label were the stuff of indie water cooler infamy, but they also collected recordings (2002’s House Arrest and Lover Boy; 2003’s Worn Copy) that Pink had made years before. It wasn’t until early 2009 that the world had the chance to hear any new output from the notoriously mysterious musician.
Until then, the talk about Pink largely focused on how serious he was — or wasn’t. Built from lengthy experimentation and goofy gimmicks, such as drum noises made with his armpits, his lo-fi music wasn’t just a byproduct of bedroom recording, it was a reimagining of 1970s and ’80s radio jingles and easy listening sounds. Jingles are disposable by definition, yet anyone familiar with some from the ’70s has to admit they are designed to remain in your brain. They were touchstones for the young Pink, and through a love for them, he picked up a knack for great hooks and memorable choruses.
Catchy though they may be, the repetitive nature of Pink’s early songs nonetheless made some listeners wonder whether he was just monkeying about and marketing lo-fi weirdness to those with nostalgic impulses. A sweeping ballad that might mark a poignant moment in a Sunday night made-for-TV tearjerker, “For Kate I Wait” is one of the best songs from his 2004 debut The Doldrums (Paw Tracks). But the damn thing does not need to be over four minutes long, considering it consists of a single idea: sentences that rhyme with the title.
On Pink’s new album Before Today (4AD), he takes the leap to a larger label, drops a lot of the lo-fi scuzz and delivers smoothly succinct pop songs. The lo-fi isn’t gone completely, but it is refined. And while his vocals remain muddy and hidden behind other sounds, half the fun is guessing just what he’s going on about. You can’t take the weird out of a man, and Pink has spent too many years purposely being strange for Before Today to suddenly strip him of all idiosyncrasy. Keen-eared listeners will pick out stream-of-consciousness mutterings like “Make me maternal, fertile woman/Make me menstrual, menopause man/Rape me, castrate me, make me gay/Lady, I’m a lady from today” on “Menopause Man,” and while the tongue-in-cheek imagery conveys to listeners that Pink is still in on his own joke, the album really shines when he manages to play it straight.
The cover art for Before Today’s chief single “Round and Round” may sport a lovingly drawn image of a man french-kissing a dog, but the track itself is so masterfully clean and structured that it transcends homage, becoming one of the year’s best songs. The gifted flair for a sound and a hook that made Pink’s early works so catchy is still there, but he switches up tempo and groove so many times that the composition never outstays its welcome despite its five-minute length. Likewise, “Can’t Hear My Eyes” is easy-listening heaven, with echoed vocals and sharp piano flourishes that recall the Alan Parsons Project’s more radio-friendly fare, like “I Wouldn’t Wanna Be Like You.” These particular songs stand out for their devotion to time and place, but all of Before Today is a sprawling run through the dollar bin at Amoeba Music, and Pink makes it his own by picking apart the best bits and reimagining 2010 as it might have been if Fleetwood Mac and Cherry Coke still ran the radio.
Pink is often casually tossed in the freak-folk category of knowing eccentrics, alongside the likes of Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom. Both Banhart and Newsom have recently taken a more classic approach to their respective crafts — to great success — while remaining true to their unique personalities. It’s likely that the freak-folk tag’s death and in turn these artist’s survival resides in the realization that weirdness doesn’t have to define you as an artist. Mark down 2010 as the year Pink decided to take his turn at bat, cutting the shit and showing the world Ariel Pink cooks with fire.