Saturday, November 6, 2010

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti: Before Today (2010)



We think of lo-fi as a crucially uncommercial music. But why? So many of us have been drawn to, say, Daniel Johnston because of his skill with a melody much more than the tape hiss screaming across his recordings. Avant garde wunderkind Ariel Pink has taken this a step further with the ambitious studio recording Before Today, a dreamlike hybrid of radio songs and private eccentricities that acquires the immediacy, the familiarity, the New of the finest rock albums through its defiant preoccupation with sounds.

Sounds that we recognize and unite with are captured here with what almost seems like an attempt to encapsulate the idea of alternative rock music in a skewed, theatrical rundown of its various tangents since the mid-'60s. Nearly every track sounds like the almost-forgotten radio soundtrack of someone's emotionally aching high school nights, but all from different years, and yet all with perversely the same underdog sensibility. But lo-fi it remains, yet the intention now seems to be quite specifically to make aged music, sounding distant enough in time to become explicitly surreal. The result is gripping and often surprisingly (gorgeously) sad, conjuring up memory and loss.

We're not made of stone around here, so let's play Connect the Dots with alt-rock and Ariel Pink's LP: The roots lie in '60s garage-rock, represented here by a magnificent cover of the Rockin' Ramrods' "Bright Lit Blue Skies." Skip forward to the years of disco and '70s power pop and we receive the Fleetwood Mac-esque "Round and Round," the record's highlight, which is saying a lot. A jazz-fusion / funk / reggae interlude allows the instrumental "Reminiscences," while UK and NYC punk get their due with "Revolution's a Lie" and the insanely accurate "Little Wig" (a dead ringer for Richard Hell and his original collaborators, Television) respectively. Opening track "Hot Body Rub" suggests disorienting, throes-of-death ska. The completely convincing "Fright Night (Nevermore)" absolutely nails new wave circa Orange Juice and Gary Numan. The lite-funk synthpop of "Beverly Kills" successfully mixes '70s Talking Heads with '80s pop excess, captured even more expertly with the brilliant soft rock burlesque "Can't Hear My Eyes." After that, take your pick: tricky underground post-punk ("L'estat"), mid-'80s college-indie ("Butt-House Blondies"), ingenious goth rock ("Menopause Man").

Quite a voyage. It's difficult to even point to standouts, the record is so consistent, except to mention that "Hot Body Rub" is dubious, "Round and Round" is one of the loveliest, most arms-raised feeling-infinite celebratory songs I've heard in a long time, and "Fright Night" will endanger the lives of anyone hearing it with a temporary and violent urge to be a teenager during the 1980s. All of these historical notes and ideas are filtered through a busy, hazy soundscape, evocative of a four-track tape partially copied over, that gives them crucial idiosyncracy. It's also obvious that the record was enormously fun to record and create -- you can't hear the attention to detail in "Can't Hear My Eyes" without smiling -- but that wouldn't be possible without Ariel Pink's careful, restrained songcraft and cleverly casual lyrics. He's composed these songs not for the intellectual thrill of a trip down sonic memory lane but to form the soundtrack to a heightened life we'd all like to live. The album is about the secret associations that come with all music; because it sounds like a forgotten mixtape, it presents the urge to peel away layers of mystery to find the life underneath.

For someone who grew up on the same music and attitudes as Ariel Pink, it is bound to be a surprisingly moving experience -- it's not derivative beacuse the songs are so good, the approach so singular -- and I'd wager you can plant a given song from a mixtape of actual period music corresponding to its conceit without even a slight suggestion that it doesn't belong. The winding melodies and affectionate singing (plus those lush, powerful backing vocals) could work without the context Ariel Pink lays down, but why resist the world he's invented and cribbed when it feels so good to live in it for forty-five minutes? For someone who didn't grow up on Joy Division and Love & Rockets, the result might be even more profound: this isn't our music, as much as we might have longed for it to be at times, but in this setting it suddenly is ours, all the late nights and subtle connections and fading laughter that "Round and Round" might've soundtracked in 1982 can unequivocally belong to those who weren't born in time. What's more, as hard as this music hits you instantly, this emotional depth unfolds over repeated listens; you'll find yourself growing ever more attached to this as you spend time with it, which is saying a lot for something that requires no great leap to begin with.

The music Ariel Pink makes here may not be the most original you've heard in 2010, but it is among the most heartfelt and impressive. And the guts from whence these noises arise, the breathlessly excited manner in which they're presented, these are what makes Before Today one of the most rewarding releases of the year. Do whatever you gotta do to hear it and immediately equip your vehicle with it for the next night drive in your life.

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