Sunday, September 24, 2017

album review: 'dedicated to bobby jameson' by ariel pink

So nearly every review of this record I've seen starts with a brief story of Bobby Jameson, a singer-songwriter in the mid-60s who was heavily promoted and developed a bit of a cult following before getting eaten alive by the music industry and his own appetites. It's not exactly a pleasant story but it's not a surprising one either, and there's no obvious villain: sure, the music industry didn't make things easy for more protest-minded artists like Jameson, even in the 60s, but drug and alcohol abuse on his part didn't help matters, and he spent chunks of the 70s institutionalized or homeless. He resurfaced in the public eye after his 1965 record Songs of Protest and Anti-Protest was reissued without his knowledge, and from 2007 onwards he put together a combination of blog posts and videos on YouTube detailing his experiences, up until his death in 2015.

Now here's the thing: I actually found his channel and watched a few of his videos, where he had his music, a few vlogs, and some footage from protest events. And a few things struck me: one, you can tell he found the internet as a potent outlet to let off steam at an industry that screwed him, a renegade voice for the void like so many others on this platform, but at the same time he also reminded me a lot of older ex-musicians I've met, particularly out of the indie or punk scene: pretty smart, appreciative of his tiny audience, but also bitterly cynical and not quite as self-aware as he might seem. And a lot of it is pretty tough to watch, especially as it has the homespun quality of a channel that was never going to break a thousand subscribers. And thus it's absolutely no surprise that Ariel Pink found him and wrote an album dedicated to him. Hell, on some level given Pink's own peripheral placement in the music industry as a weird, often misunderstood outcast cribbing from the garbage of pop culture and with a bad habit of antagonizing people - look up his minor feud with Grimes if you want to get a sense of it - he probably viewed Jameson as a kindred spirit, or his career arc as somewhat prophetic. And while I've never been a huge Ariel Pink fan, he does have a lifetime pass for 'Round And Round' that means I'm always going to listen to what he puts out, even if I like and appreciate it more than I love it. So what did we unearth with Dedicated To Bobby Jameson?

Well, I feel I got both more and less than what I expected, which to some extent should not be surprising from Ariel Pink. This is not a straightforward tribute to Bobby Jameson, both in sound or its content, with his figure more of a name to hang over a collection of scattered musings about death and aging as an artist. And of course Pink isn't making this easy so he pushes the sound through gummy layers that some have argued are a return to his lo-fi roots in comparison with the shrieking, garish technicolor of pom pom, which returns pretty mixed results. So in other words I will not say it's better than Before Today, but it is a slightly easier listen than his last two records in terms of song structure and overall tune... at least when it comes to an Ariel Pink project, that is.

So let's start with that content and thematic arc, to the extent there is one. At first you get the impression that Pink is toying with imagery of God and death and endings in his usual semi-detached way, but why then interject a song like 'Feels Like Heaven' so early in the track listening, one of the more straightforward love songs Pink has ever written? Or follow it a few songs later with 'Santa's In The Closet', one of the less listenable songs Pink has released in recent memory as he portrays Santa Claus as a drooling, perverted, near-suicidal mess... which is a little fascinating when you consider how that figure in popular culture is immortal - he might want to go to hell and end it all, but he can't get there, so thoroughly defined by the culture around him. And it becomes apparent the album is less focused on death than it is lost potential and misbegotten truth: the title track focuses on Jameson's disappearance from public eye in alienated disgrace, and 'Another Weekend' shows Pink seeing his own time slip further from his fingers. So he wants to be young, he wants to go back and relive bad decisions to see that potential stretching ahead of him in bubblegum dreams... and yet amusingly only a few songs later we see him squandering that potential too in all the more lazy, hedonistic debauchery. Again, you see how someone like Ariel Pink might have seen parallels between his own career and Jameson's, but he's self-aware enough to know the value of that potential to an audience that he does have: the blank cassette that could represent anything, the knowledge of a connection that doesn't need recorded evidence... because on some level he knows it is all just an act. It's a fascinating choice to end the record with 'Acting', but the subtext is worth examining, because no art is entirely representative of the artist's human experience, especially in a town like L.A. obsessed with holding onto the veneer of youth. And so when you have artists like Ariel Pink who showcase all the misshapen facets of those human cravings and phobias - let's call it truth - it picks up a certain power for even he to look into the camera and admit even this is an act.

Of course, if you're expecting this to be Ariel Pink's version of Orson Welles' legendary film F For Fake, you're not really getting that - despite similar themes Pink is fumbling towards truths that Welles managed to crystallize and articulate with stunning potency. Ariel Pink is more interested in untangling his own story in all of its gooey redirects and false starts - hell, the song 'I Wanna Be Young' came from those early cassette days of the Scared Famous compilation in 2002, and 'Acting' is a remix of sorts of a Dam-Funk collaboration from two years ago off Invite The Light. But at the same time, look at the production and it's hard not to see a certain twisted parallel between parts of this record and F For Fake, if only in terms of how low-grade footage and lo-fidelity mixes have a similar gummy, decomposing vibe with fragments of stunning clarity amidst the murk. Ariel Pink of course isn't really all that consistent with this - 'Another Weekend' takes gentle psychedelic acoustics and splits its liquid synths with spongy effects, and despite the lower fidelity of some of the pickups, the balance of the multi-tracked vocals still has some impressive clarity and swell. And that's before you get songs that aren't far removed from your average jangle pop or garage tune with their pickups - the sandy burble of synths and clear female vocals on 'Kitchen Witch' are a prime example of this, and the noisy roil of 'Bubblegum Dreams' wouldn't be that far removed from that last Alvvays record - hell, you can go to a song like 'Death Patrol' with its sandy drum machine knocks against the 80s funk of the bassline and it wouldn't be that far removed from your average cop show knockoff - same thing with 'Acting' with Dam-Funk, only with more autotune and a hint more groove. 

But at the same time, if you're into the weirder side of Ariel Pink that's a little less concerned with structure, there's plenty of that too - and like with previous records, it's also where I find him the most hit-and-miss, especially vocally. The runny synths behind 'Santa's In The Closet' might have been tolerable if Pink wasn't contorting his voice into what sounds like a croaking, faux-German accent, and that's before we get the squeaky shrillness behind 'I Wanna Be Young' that sounds like Pink tried whatever he could to improve from fifteen years ago, but it still feels grating. And that's before you get the cacophony of 'Time To Live' that tries to have some structure, but ultimately doesn't resolve itself much. And I'd be remiss to not mention how Ariel Pink remains a writer who has a casual disinterest in good taste, which means songs like the title track might have great hooks - and is probably one of the best songs on the album from a melodic point of view - but isn't exactly something I feel remotely comfortable singing along with, and if you hear it you'll understand why. And on top of that, while some will consider this more of a back-to-basics approach for Ariel Pink for sounds that he neglected on his more polished tunes around the turn of the decade, I'm not going to lie and say that his most refined tracks both here and records like Before Today are the ones I return to most - just personal taste in that regard, especially as Ariel Pink seems to have run out of ammunition to truly shock me here.

And to some extent that's fine, because there are a fine set of songs here that I do like - but as a whole it can feel thin and meandering in spots, scrabbling for bigger ideas that maybe closer consideration would have refined... but at the same time, there is something uniquely gooey and misshapen about Pink that remains part of his fundamental appeal. As such, I think a 7/10 and a recommendation is fair, but I'm not sure how much else I'll be all the interested in hearing from Pink if he doesn't continue into weirder but still catchy territory. Still, it's a worthwhile experiment and it got me to look up a forgotten character in music history, and that's worth something, so if you're curious, check it out.

1 comment:

  1. Its really nice gesture to dedicate the song and pay tribute to the living legends. I really appreciate ariel pink for her this beautiful gesture.