opinion byNATHAN WISNICKI
There’s an oft-referenced and increasingly relevant exchange from an old Simpsons episode - never mind the context - where a mopey teenage concertgoer turns to his equally mopey friend and asks, “Are you being sarcastic, dude?” The resigned reply: “I don’t even know anymore.”
Certainly that exchange can stand for plenty of scenes and scenesters in the clickbait era, but it might apply best to Ariel Pink. The guy’s been churning out lo-fi indie psych-pop for well over a decade now, developing enough of a cult on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label to finally, err, “break through” - as much as can be expected for anyone who makes “lo-fi indie psych-pop,” anyway - on 4AD with 2010?s Before Today.
It’s tempting to retroactively call Before Today’s wider acclaim a side-effect of indie’s late-‘00s lurch toward the proggy and synthy; buzz between labelmates passes quick, after all. But Before Today really did sum-up what people appreciate about Ariel Pink: murky-yet-garish textures reminiscent of an exaggerated and perhaps creepily idealized 1980s; quirky song structures that push you in one direction and then whip you around to several others; zappy retro synth and keyboard tones; chiming, reverbed guitar; a gothy absurdism in the words and vocals that cross frequently into the grotesque.
Oh, and the nonsense. The utter fucking nonsense. Which brings us back to that Simpsons line. Now, while there’s no doubt Pink’s affection for smeared gothy textures and new wave eclecticism is sincere, 2012’s Mature Themes and now the 17-track, 67-minute Pom Pom have seen a move toward the kind of avowed goofiness that we used to call novelty songs — a potentially dire prospect for a lo-fi indie psych-popper. While Pink’s lyrics have long frequented the gaudy and the gross, they’re put over by the sounds themselves, which take the Animal Collective route of using modern recording techniques to deliberately ugly effect. In other words, Pink does achieve the grotesque that he clearly wants: taking things with practical functions and impractically exaggerating them, simply for the sake of exaggeration.
Cases in point include opening track “Plastic Raincoats in the Pig Parade”, which breaks up a jolly chime of a riff and a chorus of girlish ‘oh yeah!’s with crudely-spliced lip-smacking samples that come out of nowhere, isolated, later adding police sirens and horse neighs to the manically exaggerated charm. “Sexual Athletics” moves on a dirty Funkadelic-in-blues-mode guitar riff with Frank Zappa vocals and a “Genius of Love” reference, and just drops into a daydreamy lullaby midway through for singers to ease you down: ‘Sexual diversion, don’t call it perversion.’ “Nude Beach a Go-Go” lands in the middle of the album as a hazy, peppy ‘60s go-go ditty. Single “Black Ballerina” works on a minimal, early-‘80s DIY synth-funk riff and adds a skit over the middle with a lecher gleefully trying to set a dorky kid up with an L.A. stripper. And “White Freckles” and “Jell-o” play blatantly like ‘60s ad jingles, again in a Zappa style though less upfront with cynicism. Hell, the former song even starts and ends with a propulsive, Atari-style guitar part that’s never referenced or thrown into relief anywhere in the slower, foggier middle — it just drops out and then drops in again later.
Some reviewers praise Pink’s eschewing of transition as “unpredictable” and (thus) “exciting.” I’d prefer a more conventional term: “lazy.” Look: someone like Paul McCartney can get away with opening songs with little sections that sound nothing like the rest of the song, because he makes those little sections sound like integral parts both tonally and (oddly) structurally. Pink’s drop-ins and “whiplashes” often seem more like sloppy grafts disguised as charming absurdism. And while the Frank Zappa analogies are apt - to say nothing of Todd Rundgren - Pink at his worst and most aimless evokes the Zappa of Chunga’s Revenge and on, i.e. puerile wankery that isn’t as funny or even as goofy as it thinks it is. Certainly Pink’s goofs aren’t as tightly executed as that of, say, Ween, though Pink’s band is admittedly pretty tight by indie pop standards.
And yet while this approach of amplifying the ugly may not exactly imply a healthy future - personally, I hate it - Ariel Pink nevertheless exemplifies the kind of artist we probably need. In a scene teeming with vague, mopey, derivative indie acts of no particular sonic distinction, I for one am starved for quirky texture, shamelessly silly lyrics, or just some semblance of glee in execution — no matter how perverse. While Pink’s whimsy more or less drowned on Mature Themes from a dearth of melodic wings to keep it afloat, Pom Pom corrects some of that with texture, with (relative) eclecticism, and, yes, with tunes.
Everyone’s so focused on totality these days that many are gonna try to justify the whole Ariel Pink package as either a holistic success or an utter failure. Real talk: Pink’s primary talents are in texture, plain and simple. Before Today got by not because the songs were so damn good (though a few were; sometimes he even tried for actual transitions!), but because the murky, trepidatious sound was colorful enough (in its murky way) to sustain a real, ahem, atmosphere of a groggy, wistful, yet somewhat eerie dream; like John Hughes crossed with David Lynch crossed with John Waters. Pom Pom recalls similar vibes in bursts, and at its best conjures even more striking colors and passages: the backing vocals in “White Freckles” modulating up and down and ending up infectious by the end; ebbs of reverbed pan pipe disguised as squeaky keyboard in the melancholic “Lipstick”; bish-bash drumming and psychedelic hard-rock guitar licks in the ridiculous “Goth Bomb” (‘Why can’t I write the words down right? ’Cause I’m a goth bomb!’); the manic shouts and chants of the titular “Negativ Ed” that set off a delightfully timed hiccup.
There’s even conventional prettiness. The blend of high vibraphone overtones and arpeggiated acoustic guitars in the sweet summer’s day of “Put Your Number In My Phone” is one of the most likable things Pink’s done; it opens with the line, ‘There’s magic in the air,’ and I sat there waiting for some gross lyric about enemas or something to ruin it, only to be pleasantly surprised when it never happened. And though there’s some outright filler here (the failed reggae beat of - dear God - “Dinosaur Carebears”), it isn’t until the four longer closing track that things get wearying. And even there, you get a potent ‘clap your hands’ outro in “Dayzed Inn Daydreams” and a gorgeous section of synth vocal drift in the middle of “Exile on Frog Street” that recalls Genesis’ “Watcher of the Skies”.
“Not Enough Violence” is the most musically intense song on the album and one that shows off Ariel Pink’s best and worst qualities. It builds up a churning, nervous synth beat, shimmering its swelling lo-fi texture to sound right at home on a mid-‘80s Cure record. At the 1:30 mark feverish synth tones wobble like loud ghosts wailing in your ears as you speed down a rainy highway. There’s a worry in those sounds, a dread; like heading fast toward some anxious inevitability, plunging in flames through overcast neon.
And then the song adds industrial hammers against a crackled sample of chiming bells, soon taken over by digital blips and synthesized harp wooze...and then comes back with those scary synth sounds for Pink to yell overtop: ‘Fertilizer! Fertiliiizah! Fertilizah!’
What the hell, man?! We finally get an indie artist recalling the horrific dread of the ‘80s, and he’s gonna shout ‘fertilizer!’ over it like it’s his first-born child drifting into the abyss? Why? To assure us he’s ‘only kidding?’ Is he ‘only kidding?’ Who knows! Why not just throw a bunch of horse neighs and cartoon spaceship laser-gun noises into these songs while you’re at it? (Oh, right — he did.)
Arghh! Going through such varying degrees of success and stupidity, it’s difficult to come down hard on any “side” with Ariel Pink, which may be just what he intends. I’m caught in the awkward position of having to simultaneously respect his goofy zeal and quirky taste in lo-fi texture and malign the unctuousness of his low-register Bowie vocal put-ons and his complete aversion to a perspective that isn’t totally nostalgic for the freakin’ 1980s. Enough with the ‘80s! They didn’t work the first time! Hell, at least you don’t have to think about irony with a Taylor Swift album!
Is it surprising that a 67-minute Ariel Pink album is a bit, err, frustrating? No. Yet as murky and goofy as Before Today was, it took its time to build overall atmosphere, instead of little fragmented half-atmospheres that you have to cherry-pick from songs unworthy of them. Ariel Pink is ultimately frustrating for the same reasons so many of his colleagues are: he gathers textural and melodic tropes from all over pop music history, filters them through a smeared ‘80s aesthetic with some undeniable craft/texture evinced, and then throws them up in the air and says, “I dunno, you deal with it!” Oh, how easily the merely vague becomes the grotesque.