ISSUE #1 THE IMAGINED, AUTUMN 2012
REVIEWS AND CRITIQUE
Ariel Pink’s Before Today
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Sunset Boulevard is the iconic, twenty-four-mile long street that snakes through some of West Los Angeles’s most exclusive and expensive neighborhoods. At 8300 Sunset is a pretentiously stylish hotel named The Standard. Behind the front desk at reception, just above the heads of two seated receptionists, a glass vitrine is set into a wall. Inside the glass box lies a girl in her underwear. Guests or visitors passing through the minimalist lobby can watch the girl-in-the-box sleeping, talking on her cell, or surfing the net. If you are candid enough to ask the purpose of the installation, you will be told that it is performance art. There is no critique, no post-feminist agenda, and no token engagement with the history of performance art. It is just a girl in her underwear, in a glass box. 

Many versions of Los Angeles are at play across the city. The Standard, with its depthless “performance art” and corporate piggybacking of contemporary art and culture, forms part of the hipster cityscape. Then – and we’re just skimming the surface – there are the barrios of East LA’s Hispanic homeboys, the Koreatown of Korean shop owners and restaurateurs, and the mythical gangland battlefields of Compton’s Crips. In the same way that LA natives rarely frequent the city’s tourist traps, members of one community rarely walk into the haunts and hangouts of the next. But visitors to the city can; all you need is a car, and more than any other metropolis in the world, LA is designed to be driven through. At cruising speed, panoramas of extreme cultural, racial, economic, and architectural difference – alongside locations you’ve seen in a hundred bad movies and TV shows – drift past your window, coalescing into a unified, hyperreal whole. Through the neon frame of sparkling electric nights and scorching sun-bleached days, LA becomes a kind of perpetual montage: the city as a cinematic dream sequence, a Hollywood flashback in soft focus.

Ariel Pink, the awkward lo-fi musician, Kurt Cobain look-alike, devotee of eyeliner and women’s blouses, LA native and California Institute of the Arts graduate, is an artist who has made this hazy locale his aesthetic home. Since handing a CD-R to Animal Collective in 2003, Pink’s record releases have lurked in the gutters of audio fidelity, saturated as they are with blankets of cassette tape hiss, bad phasing, and amateurish applications of psychedelic effects. While some music fans and journalists dismissed Pink’s early work as unlistenable, a small group of dedicated fans rallied against the mainstream for not recognizing a tortured genius at work. That is, until the 2010 release of Before Today, Pink’s first studio-recorded, major-label album. Hipsters flocked; Pitchfork, the influential American music blog, voted a Pink album track its number one song of the year; and magazines united in recognizing Before Today as a major step forward for Pink in particular, and post-postmodern music in general – denoted by stylistically heterogeneous composition, in which the existence of multiple genres is not seen as a radical gesture but more of an accepted indication of contemporaneity. These accolades came with good reason: Before Today is the most sonically accomplished, yet uncompromising, Ariel Pink album to date; it is also the most thorough aural representation of the citywide dreamscape he inhabits.

The album begins with an aural equivalent of the car-bound city montage. “Hot Body Rub,” a title surely lifted from a glinting, neon-fronted LA bathhouse, opens with the sound of a stereo-panned car engine. Curbside conversations emerge from its faded whoosh and growl, and the band plays a seedy Valium-paced funk jam. A saxophone, louche and sleazy, hovers above the mix, double-tracked to add a bit of glitter and echoed for a ghostly evocation of space. Embedded in this introduction is the suggestion of everything that is to come, a tour of the sites and locations waiting to be visited and conjured later on, a somnambulant journey in which the listener is at once cruising, hallucinating, and watching the opening credits of a late-night 1980s talk show. The same trick is used in the first bars of “Beverly Kills” as the sounds of a car crash and police sirens position the listener firmly within the cityscape.   

 Despite Pink’s tendency to genre-hop through garage, surf, yacht, and ‘70s and ‘80s soft rock, if one were to place Before Today’s sonic aesthetic into a defined era, it would exist sometime between 1980 and 1997. A degraded, hiss-saturated ambience, seemingly pulled from the worn VHS and cassette tapes that dominated this period of mass home recording, defines Ariel Pink’s entire oeuvre. A lot of the songs on Before Today sound as if they are actually from B movie soundtracks. For instance, in “Fright Night,” swirling cheap wind effects (Pink has been known to produce these with his mouth) and warped domestic synthesizers could have been taken from the 1985 teen horror movie of the same name. “Revolutions a Lie,” a bopping slice of Californian skate punk, sounds straight out of a sequence in the classic 1987 skate movie Wheels on Fire, while the beautifully demented gender confusion nightmare of “Menopause Man” could easily provide the theme song for a forgotten Troma movie on mutant sexuality. These instances of audio degradation and distortion function as antidotes to the processed perfection of modern pop recording and imbue the tracks with humanity and dignity.

The album flits between recordings like the above and the surf rock of “L’estat” (named after Anne Rice’s camp vampire), “Bright Lit Blue Skies,” and “Little Wig.” But the most accomplished pieces on the record are the masterfully hypnotic “Round and Round” (Pitchfork’s, and just about everyone else’s, number one song of 2010) and the tragic-kitsch melodrama of “Can’t Hear My Eyes.” In both tracks, an easy-listening aesthetic, pitched somewhere between Joni Mitchell’s 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Steely Dan’s 1980 album Gaucho, rubs up against Pink’s surrealistic wordplay and complex arrangements. It’s all spliced together with instances of Quincy Jones-style muted grooves – in fact Sunny Levine, the grandson of Jones, produced parts of the album. 

When listening to Ariel’s music, the media of yesterday isn’t far behind. It’s there in song titles borrowed from films and lowbrow literature; it surfaces in the synthesized sounds evoking American soap operas like The Young and the Restless or Days of our Lives. As such, Pink conjures a vision of LA as a fully mediated city, composing from the vantage point of an observer remediating his experience of the city’s televisual, filmic, mythic, literary, and audial representations of itself. Why bother with the real when you can revel in the city of dreams?

The masterstroke of Before Today is that it provides an accessible framework through which Pink filters re-recorded and now recontextualised early material. It provides a route into his (often challenging) DIY back catalogue that listeners are comfortable to take. In Pink’s earlier material, his wholesale disregard for audio fidelity in albums like House Arrest (2006) and The Doldrums (2004) pushed his work beyond the safe havens of nostalgia, into something much more troubling for the average listener: outsider music. Here, a lack of fidelity isn’t an aesthetic choice; it is an indication of a harried and disturbed mind, operating on the fringes of society and the recording industry. The naïve American love songs of Daniel Johnson lie at one end of this spectrum, and the incandescent psychosis of (former Red Hot Chilli Pepper) John Frusciante’s 1994 album Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-shirt is at the other.

Despite word Pink and his group, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, are working on a new album titled A Death in Hollywood and a werewolf movie provisionally titled Bad Vibes, the only post-Before Today effort so far has been the re-release of “Witchhunt Suite for WWIII.” Originally sold as a CD-R at 2007 live shows, the creative process for the one-off single begun in 2001, after the September 11 attacks on which the track is based. Ostensibly a surrealistic indictment of American imperialism, “Witchhunt Suite” is a stitched-together collage of faintly prog rock audio material, undergrad political sentiment, and dirge-like drones, lacking the sophistication of anything on Before Today

The most pervasive and far-reaching results of Pink’s seminal album have come unsurprisingly from “Round and Round,” remade from its incarnation as an early four-track song titled “Frontman/Hold On (I’m Calling).” In a South London recording studio I visited recently, two commercial producers working on the pop album of British Pop Idol competition winner Will Young had stolen its instantly recognizable bass line – they admitted as much to me over a cup of tea. The distance between Pink’s early career as a bedroom-bound social misfit to being the kind of artist that the commercial world seeks to rip-off is the giant leap Before Today has allowed him to take. It is a phenomenon emblematic of the city of Los Angeles, where the pitfalls of the entertainment industry spare no one from consumption.

Photograph by Nelly Achkhen Sarkissian.
Photograph by Nelly Achkhen Sarkissian.
Photograph by Nelly Achkhen Sarkissian.
Photograph by Nelly Achkhen Sarkissian.
Photograph by Nelly Achkhen Sarkissian.
Photograph by Nelly Achkhen Sarkissian.
Photograph by Nelly Achkhen Sarkissian.
Photograph by Nelly Achkhen Sarkissian.
Photograph by Nelly Achkhen Sarkissian.
  
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