The Los Angeles Times is offering an exclusive stream of the new full-length by Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti this week on its Pop & Hiss blog. The album, Before Today, is easily one of the best of the year so far, especially for those with an unabashed love for gorgeous soft-rock harmonies and the perverted corners of '80s decadence.
Much has been made of Pink's (real name: Ariel Rosenberg) foresight of current trends; there's overwhelming evidence of this in the wealth of otherworldly home-recorded material he's issued and reissued throughout the past decade. The majority of these tracks were recorded in the late '90s and the early '00s but didn't make their way to many listeners until The Doldrums was released by Animal Collective's Paw Tracks label in 2004.
The fidelity of that album is so poor that it sounds like a collection of easy-listening radio hits recorded onto cassette tape, only to be left on the dashboard of an abandoned Volvo station wagon until someone discovered it years later.
But nearly every aesthetic aspect of Rosenberg's early recordings—aside from the fact that many of the drum sounds were made with his mouth—shows up in recent output from bands categorized as “chillwave” or lo-fi. (See: Neon Indian, Toro y Moi, Memory Tapes, Washed Out, Small Black or anything referred to as “chillwave” or “lo-fi”).
What some writers insist is the “sound of 2010” was actually the sound of Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti 10 years ago. This is not to mention that Rosenberg hasn't exactly been a critical darling in the past, as he was repeatedly dismissed by publications that are now quick to dole out praise.
So, of course, Before Today sees Rosenberg also dismissing whatever tag is being foisted upon him and launching straight into his own demented studio indulgence, with direct references to The Beatles, ELO and Eddie Murphy's impression of James Brown in the first three songs.
In a small piece accompanying the album stream, noted music scribe Simon Reynolds writes, “Pink belongs to the post-historical generation, shaped by the endless shuffle-mode of VH1 and classic rock radio, and, more recently, iPod and YouTube. ‘We have no concept of time,' [Rosenberg] says, talking of how some people in his generation, ‘who like sixties music, they live there forever.'”
Disputes with the tag “post-historical” aside, it's true that Rosenberg's music is somehow representative of a generational crux, one that I would describe as a vaguely apathetic war between irony and sincerity.
Clearly a student of pop music and all its various forms, Rosenberg knows what is considered cool, despite what anyone would argue to the contrary. That said, he revels in the uncool, embracing it so sincerely that he has become the epitome of cool in some circles.
For example, 10 years ago, the Steely Dan / Hall & Oates sheen of “Can't Hear My Eyes” would be banished to bargain bins around the world. Today, original pressings of the single are being auctioned for upwards of $30 on eBay.
The quality of Rosenberg's songwriting is inarguable. It's his absurd sense of humor, however, that presents an all-too-common problem. The obsession with tacky remnants of mass-produced culture threatens to cheapen an otherwise rich experience. After all, this is an artist who has no problem naming songs on his album “Hot Body Rub” and “Butt-House Blondies.”
There's a panic-inducing, frustrating quality to his work—and subsequently, the music of those he's inspired—a sense that it's all part of one big, self-satisfied conceptual art project. After witnessing the evolution from his early recordings to Before Today, Rosenberg's arc resembles that of fellow “can't-tell-if-it's-a-joke” purveyors Ween and their similar rise from four-track scribbles to full-fledged studio albums.
But beneath Before Today's endlessly referential knowingness lies the sentiment of somebody who really loves and appreciates pop music, despite the acknowledgement of how ridiculous its tropes and simple pleasures can be. It should be a note to today's crop of bedroom musicians—self-consciousness and '80s references are only going to get you so far.