Monday, December 15, 2014

album review: 'pom pom' by ariel pink

It's time we talk about one of the most artists in the indie scene, and one of the more polarizing ones too. This is an artist that critics and his cult audience absolutely loves, but to most others, even other indie music fans, he's considered either a joke or a disgrace. An artist that manages to fuse elements of the psychedelic and deranged with elements that either can come across as charmingly retro, painfully outdated, or just plain kitsch in the most mundane of ways.

Yep, we're talking about Ariel Pink, outsider pop artist and one of the most intriguing figures in the indie scene for over a decade. Originally a fan of gothic rock, he became enamoured of the lo-fi cassette culture of the 1980s, which combined for his knack for melody and odd vocal percussion led to a runny, smeared-over style of music that I'd call a gimmick if it wasn't so painfully sincere. The best way I can describe it is kitsch, the blend of old cast-off pop culture - bargain barrel long-forgotten disposable pop and rejected music for training videos and PSAs - with lyrics that often get a lot more dark and graphic than one might realize or be able to make out through his lo-fi recordings. It's unsurprising that his material doesn't translate well live, because it's material crafted from rejected and outdated normality, and that doesn't exactly fit well blown up to a stage. 

And yet there's something real to this that I like. I dig the sincerity and the occasional unsettling or surprising elements in the lyrics, I like his focus on melody and the warm texture in the music. And most of all, I like that he takes the forgotten junk of pop culture and tries to cobble together something real. It's pop art, sure, but it's the best kind - pushing rejected junk through a singular artistic lens, and after getting noticed by Animal Collective and signed to their label, a vision that proved surprisingly influential. And suddenly, a guy who never intended to be popular dropped into the spotlight, and he and his band Haunted Graffiti dropped a critically acclaimed record Before Today in 2010. Now that album was pretty damn excellent, probably one of his best efforts to fuse his aesthetic to a record that proved incredibly compelling. It was also probably his most accessible album to date and with the success of songs like 'Round & Round' he drew a bigger fanbase than ever. And thus it almost seemed like this follow-up Mature Themes was designed to push them away, by going harsher, darker, and nastier in its lyrical content. And it wouldn't be hard to believe that - it was a shame the album lost some of the warmer textures and killer melodies along the way which made it a fair bit less compelling. And thus I wasn't exactly sure where Ariel Pink was going to go with his newest record Pom Pom, his first full-length studio record that was not made with his band The Haunted Graffiti, but I definitely made sure to check it out. How is it?

Well, it's interesting, that's for sure, and the sort of complicated, thought-provoking record that Ariel Pink can make - but I don't love it the same way I've really dug some of his previous works. It's definitely apparent how his increased success and infamy has coloured his work, so much so you could make the argument this record is him placing his warped mirror to that success and the culture behind it. And yet it's also a mirror that places Ariel Pink in an awkward light, and when so many have questioned his authenticity, he walks on even more precarious ground.

So by now if you're familiar with Ariel Pink's sound, this album will not surprise you much. Washed-out and smeared synth and guitar lines, a cacophony of shrill or obviously fake-sounding or grating voices, chipper melody lines that remain surprisingly sticky and tight even despite the production doing everything possible to blend the sound, and percussion that has distinctly muted punch. And all of it is squeezed through a lo-fi filter with a fleshy warmth that colours some of the colder synth lines. The aesthetic this time around isn't far from Pink's usual preferences - broad kitschy gothic tones that revel in a certain slimy ugliness, 60s/80s girl groups who have always reveled in shallow phoniness, eerie synthpop from dive nightclubs that recalls acts like The Cure with all of their slickness torn away, ugly fuzzy fragments of distorted 60s/70s rock, and the occasional more conventional lazy surf rock that sticks to melodies that have long been trodden into the ground. And yet on some level, you can tell there is more calculation on this album, moments that are more crisp, not quite as lo-fi, where for as much as this album revels in its own ugliness - more on that in a bit - it's coming across more of an aesthetic choice rather than by necessity, which can hurt some of the fumbling, earnest charm that used to add to Ariel Pink's appeal. Granted, some of it was done intentionally, in order to call to mind some of the obvious Sgt. Pepper's callbacks with the more richly orchestrated segments, but then there were segments like 'Exile On Frog Street, which is half elegant pop song with the strings and slightly cleaner production, half croaks, half choppy transitions and aborted crescendos into explosions of sound with only the bass holding steady.

Now that's not saying there aren't moments I really liked - the chilly organ tone on 'Lipstick' was perfectly balanced against the guitar and punchy drum machines, 'Not Enough Violence' translated rattling alarm clocks into a stiff gallop of a drum progression even as layers of keyboards added density, 'Put Your Number In My Phone' takes waves of acoustic strumming into a blended acoustic melody, Pink's courtly vocals balancing against the runny waves of synthesizers and bass melody on 'One Summer Night', the sleazy almost-funk of the guitar and bass on 'Sexual Aesthetics' before a transition into a even more lo-fi segment with xylophone flutters that seems slightly more earnest. And that's not touching on the warped synth melody against a thick, fuzzier beat on the excellent 'Picture Me Gone', or the rollicking melody of 'Dayzed Inn Daydreams', with the shimmering keyboards, echoing percussion, and probably Pink's most earnest delivery on the entire record. Hell, the awkward strip-club skit on 'Black Ballerina' worked shockingly well, even if the vocal production was way too slick. But then you have tracks like 'Dinosaur Carebears' which opens with one of the oilier Indian-inspired melodies before dropping into a brittle bass that Pink then smears noisy synths of all fidelities all over before transitioning into a screwball, squawking cacophony that transitions again into a lean, empty-feeling song with a pitifully weak guitar progression and only the occasional keyboard shimmer and drum breakdown balancing Pink's disaffected vocals. The bubbling, borderline rejected commercial aesthetic comes back on 'Jell-o' - and yeah, I get that it's intended to satirize the banality of that lifestyle before the game show chorus erupts, but it's not a satire that feels original or all that cohesive with the rest of the album. And look, I know it's cohesive with the rest of the album, but his usage of girl vocals or intentionally 'quirky' voices got grating as hell.

And now we need to talk about what this album could possibly mean - or indeed, if it means anything beyond a disconnected jumble of singles full of gratuitously graphic lyrics and vivid imagery. And it'd be very easy to take a look at that, to say nothing of Pink's more lecherous than ever public persona with choice quotes like, 'It's not illegal to be an asshole' and feel a little queasy at the blatant grotesque vibe of it all. And while the overt sexuality doesn't bother me, Pink's shift in attitude does - you automatically lose a certain degree of populism when you target pop music, particularly the more attractive elements, and the brand of ugliness that Ariel Pink puts on display is a bitter pill to swallow. And when I say ugliness, it spans both physical and emotional - from the opening tracks oversexualized LA culture is placed on display in all of its fleshy, diseased glory, full of spots and blood and fluids, an oily, greasy-spraying machine, and then it gets more subtle, with the more pleasant-sounding songs filled with lyrics that reflect people who are self-absorbed, emotionally abusive assholes in love and loss. And it'd be easy to point at Ariel Pink and say he endorses all of it, especially with his perpetually disaffected demeaour, coasting by on irony and the darker tone of this record.

And I'd argue it's more complicated than that. One of the running motifs of this record is exposure, how people present themselves to others and how others react to that presentation, from the frolicking of 'Nude Beach A-Go-Go' to the discomfort in the strip club of 'Black Ballerina' to the despondency of 'Picture Me Gone'. Ariel Pink describes himself as a movie projector on 'Four Shadows', showing an ugliness that might be borderline pornographic, but on a certain level it's uncomfortable because it's familiar, and Pink's camera is far too uncomfortably tightly focused, both on himself and on others. He might be an asshole on these tracks, but as the album progresses you note that he's only wringing joy out of the moments where he finds a connection beyond the plainly physical, a communal sense of fun or an attraction that might extend beyond sex. And that's almost the tragedy of this record - if he's an asshole, it's because he can't contextualize or articulate his world in any other way, and he gets nothing out of that behavior. He can't hide the ugliness, so he just exposes it - his and everyone else's. And while he dreams of love and desire, he's bitterly aware that they're just dreams, and he needs to live with the rest of us in fleshy, overexposed reality. 

So yeah, while pom pom by Ariel Pink is creepy, uncomfortable, garish, an angry mockery of what many deem the slick beauty of pop music, there are elements of truth to his words, and there's an element of sincerity to Ariel Pink's music that does save this record. In interviews he has spoken of his profound hated with cameras, and it definitely shows as the snapshots of his world are lined with discomfort - he has enough self-awareness to know exactly how he and everyone else looks, and the only way he can rationalize it is show everyone else every uncomfortable frame. In the end, it's a potent record - it runs a little long, and some of the instrumental flourishes feel superfluous and there are points that definitely grated on my nerves - but I'm giving this album a 7/10 and a recommendation. There's no song that's as sticky and infinitely potent as 'Round & Round', but if you haven't checked it out and are willing to dive in, pom pom by Ariel Pink is definitely worth a listen.

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