THE SHOWMAN: Whether you’re listening to the crummy old stuff or the shiny new stuff, one thing stands out: Ariel Pink has the audacity to be incredibly musical.
Los Angeles is the land of the freaks — from subversive ones like Lindsay Lohan to out-and-out horror shows like Kim Fowley. But where does the mainstream of Beverly Hills end and the underworld of the cages at Whiskey a-Go-Go begin? In Ariel Pink's LA, the borders are insignificant. "Hollywood is the subculture," he says. "They are one and the same."
Some might listen to the debut album by Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Before Today (4AD), and wonder just what kind of freak this guy is. In "L'stat (Acc. to the Widow's Maid)," the sheer number of hooks packed into one stitched-together track makes you think of erstwhile bored-with-the-scene Angelenos like Zappa and Beefheart. Juxtapose that with the '70s-LA-session-pro breeziness of "Can't Hear My Eyes," where Pink coos "I want a lady as beautiful as a sunset on the strip." LA, with all of its varied (and buried) history, is his muse.
The absence of borders is a key element in the music of Ariel Pink (real name: Ariel Rosenberg). Another is his attitude toward making a mess. Before Today offers enough of both to be a great Ariel Pink album.
Throughout the '90s and until about 2002, Pink worked almost always in isolation — recording at home and making tapes and CD-Rs of his albums for those who cared. Home-recording legend R. Stevie Moore called Pink "expressly homemade: eternally valid." Lack of rules and guidance led to unconventional production techniques. Skewed sensibilities (and abilities) led to incalculable songs. But it was the actual recording medium, analog tape, that led to his ethos.
"I basically commit myself via restrictions, via setbacks, via sloppy performances," he explains. "Effects as well as affectations. All that stuff nurtures the performance. And you can't really get it right until certain things are in place."
In 2003, Pink passed one of his strange-brewed, Dolby-free albums into the hands of Animal Collective and — poof! — the following year, AC started issuing his albums one by one on its own Paw Tracks label as the "Haunted Graffiti" series. This snowballing of Pink's back catalogue led to his focusing less on home recording and more on his live act. The culmination of the live era of Ariel Pink is the recent formation of the band he not coincidentally calls Haunted Graffiti (with Tim Koh, Kenny Gilmore, and Aaron Sperske). Now, with a major label and access to modern recording studios, even he finds straddling the imaginary line between the underground and the mainstream uncomfortable.
"Most of the people who are listening to this record never gave two shits about me. And if they did, they were probably pretty closed-minded about it." But he also acknowledges that maybe the music scene has simply caught up with him. His tendencies toward lo-fi (out of necessity) production techniques, artificial percussion tracks, self-proclaimed "bad" keyboard sounds, and irreverent genre blurring don't sound as out-of-touch in 2010 as they maybe did in 1998.
So, what kind of freak is this guy? Whether you're listening to the crummy old stuff or the shiny new stuff, one thing stands out: Ariel Pink has the audacity to be incredibly musical. Nothing is dumbed-down, nothing telegraphs itself, nothing rips off anything unworthy of being stolen. The irony is that, for modern audiences, this makes him a freak.
ARIEL PINK'S HAUNTED GRAFFITI + PURO INSTINCT + MAGIC KIDS | Middle East downstairs, 480 Mass Ave, Cambridge | July 25 at 9 pm | $12 | 617.864.3278 or mideastclub.com