Ariel Pink Makes Insincerity (Mostly) A Virtue
First Posted: 11/18/2014
I place Ariel Pink as the latest in a long pantheon of winkingly insincere popsmiths from Los Angeles.
Maybe it’s the proximity to all those actors, but LA has been ground zero for musical acts that combine an unwillingness to reveal anything personal and an emphasis on parodic humor. The tradition starts with Frank Zappa in the ’60s, continues with Oingo Boingo in the ’80s, Beck in the ’90s. We find ourselves today with Ariel Pink and the impending release of “pom pom,” his third album for 4AD Records.
Ariel Pink first garnered attention for a series of solo home recordings, some which were later released on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label, that combined hazy, sometimes crude sound quality with a strong melodic sense, absurdest lyrics, and an aesthetic that championed some of the forgotten corners of ’80s pop music. His jump to the larger 4AD label brought improved recording quality, but kept the ’80s fixations.
At his best, he writes songs that sound like radio hits from an alternate universe. They’re familiar sounding but combine enough disparate influences that no specific sonic reference does them justice. The weird, bizarro-world flavor is only enhanced by Pink’s penchant for coating his music in a washed-out coat of analog tape sound. If you told me Ariel Pink’s music was taped from the montage sequences of a bunch of forgotten straight to VHS teen adventure films, I might believe you.
There’s too much effort put into this music to treat it entirely as a joke, but, when it comes to the lyrics, it’s hard to treat it like anything else. Pink delights in patently ridiculous song-titles like “Butt-House Blondies,” “Schnitzel Boogie,” and “Dinosaur Carebears.” It’s like the Spinal Tap joke, where Nigel Tufnel plays a complex and affecting minor key melody on the piano and then announces that it was entitled “Lick My Love Pump,” repeated at career-length. Ariel Pink has appeared to master the complex transcendental-ironic pose that has infected a certain segment of 21st century pop culture, with Cartoon Network’s late-night Adult Swim programming as the point of example. Even Pink’s public persona positions him as a kind of indie rock Borat—he last made headlines trying to pick a fight with Madonna, and the only reason his press-baiting statements against gay marriage haven’t led to an outcry is that it’s obvious he’s playing a role.
As a musician he’s mostly fascinating, and possessed of real melodic gifts. Ariel Pink might be the Cole Porter of self-consciously weird indie rock idiot savants.
Just from a construction standpoint, “pom pom” is striking. It contains a plethora of songs that make so many left turns they basically contain other parenthetical songs within them. This isn’t entirely unprecedented in pop music. Todd Rundgren’s “A Wizard (A True Star)” was filled with this sort of thing. Too often Ariel Pink’s melodic channel-surfing comes off like someone who doesn’t even have the attention span to finish his own jokes.
It bears guilty-pleasure fruit with “Black Ballerina,” a song that combines geeky Devo-style new wave, the first chomping percussion since the Beach Boys’ “Vegetables,” and goofy spoken word sections that owe a lot to psychedelic radio comics The Firesign Theatre. It’s incredibly tacky, and I imagine it will wear out it’s welcome quickly, but for now, I’m finding it a compulsive listen. Ironically, it’s the moments where he plays it straight that succeed the most. “Picture Me Gone” is a long synth ballad with a big melody, and fans of Magnetic Fields will find themselves in familiar territory. Best of all is “Put Your Number In My Phone,” a song that marries winning hooks with a lyric that actually reflects some of the commonplace details of modern life. It’s entirely insincere, but works that angle to it’s advantage. Gems like this remind me that insincerity isn’t always a bad thing, and storytelling doesn’t have to reflect personal experience. After all, Bruce Springsteen never did work at a factory, and I’ve read that Brian Wilson never went surfing, and wasn’t really into cars. Music is a collaborative experience between listeners and music makers. When the melodies are as strong as what Ariel Pink’s capable of, sometimes it’s alright when the listener has to shoulder the work of inventing meanings.