When I first listened to House Arrest, the 2002 album by avant garde pop group Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, I was warned by the friend recommending the album that while he loved the CD, that particular album marked the point when his normally unqestionable musical sway started to falter among his friends. For me though, House Arrest was love at first sight. With a perfect ear for the pop hits of yesteryear, specifically the acid rock of the 1960’s and early 1970’s mixed with the synth driven pop of the New Romantics in the 1980’s, like Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet, Ariel Pink crafted a sonic landscape directly on my pleasure principle of hook laden synth riffs alongside ambient interludes that were more Pink Floyd than Animal Collective, former members of Ariel Pink’s old record label, Paw Tracks. With a sound that was equal parts David Bowie, the Yardbirds, and the Talking Heads, I eagerly awaited the release of Ariel Pink’s 2010 album, Before Today, his first album to be recorded on actual studio equipment and not a cassette system in his basement (though the lo-fi nature of his earlier records was an undeniable part of their charm). While Before Today fails to ever form a cohesive whole (mostly due to Ariel Pink’s exploration of more sounds in one album and occsaionally one song than most musicians try in their entire career), it is an undeniably fun and engaging album that managed to provide one of the most unexpected and brilliant singles of 2010, the deceptively catchy “Round and Round.”
It is hard to find a jumping off point to describe the sound on this album. To list all of the influences and genres present on Before Today would require a several pages long essay. At his core, Ariel Pink (the stage name of Ariel Rosenberg) is all about crafting precisely arranged pop throwbacks that will make you truly question whether this music was written in the 2000’s. The album begins with an uncharacteristically mellow (for Ariel Pink fans recognize that ecstatic aural pleasure seems to be his only recurring theme) jazz number which evokes images of smoke filled night clubs that had invited a jazz/funk hybrid to play its opening shows. It’s not until the introduction of Pink’s heavily distorted and modified vocals make the intentional reference to James Brown on “Hot Body Rub” that you realize this is a man intentionally painting a retro soundscape. His ability to make you forget that this album didn’t slide out of a hidden recess of an FM classic rock station is made so impressive because at least once a song, he will throw in a transition so jarring you will suddenly think more Panda Bear or Radiohead than the Byrds or Cream. In the almost extra-terrestrial sounding “Little Wig,” I found influences from groups as different as Blue Oyster Cult, Steppenwolf, Meatloaf, and even noise rock groups like Sonic Youth. Ariel Pink changes gear so many times on this album that it virtually demands complete attention from its listener as you are sucked from one frenetic transition to another. Most musicians that experiment with the tone of an album will try to maintain some consistency over any given song. Ariel Pink refuses to play by those rules and like a child with more toys than he can play with, Ariel Pink throws them all in the pot til you have an album where acid rock and synthpop are two sides of the same strange coin.
The success of any given track on the album is never a matter of whether a song is a well crafted piece of pop arcana (which they all are) but instead on whether you will still remember any of it after the album’s over. For every track like “Beverly Kills,” a catchy disco/funk/new wave hybrid absolutely heavy on the sound effects and ambient interludes, or “Butt-House Blondies,” an unexpected foray into hard-rock with a head-banging guitar solo and brain-burning main guitar riff, you’ll have well-arranged numbers like “Fright Night (Nevermore)” and “Revolution’s a Lie” that simply don’t stick with you in the face of far stronger material. Similarly, while I’ll discuss the pop lyrical brilliance Ariel Pink shows on tracks like “Round and Round” or “Can’t Hear My Eyes” in a moment, most of the album is lyrically unambitious or bland, and Ariel Pink often distorts his vocals so completely that it becomes a mission in futility to understand just what he’s saying in the first place. The only song besides the two lead singles to show any real lyrical inspiration is “Menopause Man,” an ode to transexualism with the poignant line “trying too hard to be yourself. trying too hard to be what you are.” It would have made a great new wave companion to Antony & the Johnsons’ I Am a Bird Now.
The real stars of the show though are “Can’t Hear My Eyes” and “Round and Round.” Both tracks would have been right at home on a early Depeche Mode album, and “Can’t Hear My Eyes” suddenly transforms into a mellow jam band sound that would be right at home on a Grateful Dead live album if they played synthesizers (pre-Touch of Grey anwyays.) Both show the hall-marks of a man who could write Top 40 smash hits if cared long enough to write conventional music. The perfect call and response that forms the core of “Round and Round” is one of the most irresistibly catchy arrangements since “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem. The song has a deceptively simple structure, but repeat listens will reveal an constantly shifting arrangement with pick-ups, a chorus that burns into your brain more than “Hey Jude,” a bizarre but perfectly timed use of sound effects to signal the big change-up halfway through, and the recurring synth line that will stay with you for weeks. “Can’t Hear My Eyes” is more interesting from a lyrical perspective even if it won’t stay with you for months after you’ve stopped listening. Both songs though represent the sort of perfect genre fusion of psychedelic influences and pop sensibilities that used to only be the purview of Animal Collective, and even if you don’t check out the rest of the album, you need to listen to those two tracks stat.
For anyone out there who needs some sort of artistic cohesion or unifying force in their albums, you need to look elsewhere because Before Today has zero interest in sticking to one sound for more than 30 seconds. Also, there’s a healthy chance you’ll walk away from this album not knowing what any given song (“Menopause Man” excepted) was about. There’s weird music like Modest Mouse and XTC, and then there’s truly experimental music like Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. It’s so out there that you wonder who discovered this strange L.A. native with his hundreds of recorded cassettes of his own music. Then, you listen to this pitch perfect pop creations, and you remember that it was only a matter of time til he broke out. There isn’t a single bad track on the album. There’s simply such a massive gulf between the instant classic “Round and Round” and the other great tracks contrasted against the less impressive material. Even if you don’t listen to a lot of indie rock, if you’re a fan of the influences I’ve mentioned in this review, there’s a real chance you’ll find something to appreciate in Ariel Pink’s wide body of work and he’s never been more accessible than on Before Today.
Final Score: B+