I’ve recently spent some time compiling the box set of my life. Five discs spanning 33 years, there’s one disc each from the childhood years, pre-adolescence, high school, college, and post-college. Going back and hearing the wide range of styles and artists I loved as a little dude was really eye-opening. After decades of analyzing and trying to understand music, I now think of it in terms of categories and types, each with their special criteria. But as a child, it’s obvious I had only two categories: music I like and music I don’t like. Listening to Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti has always made me feel like that little kid again, and new album Before Today does nothing to change that.
Home recorded and distributed music has gained in popularity as each of those activities has become less expensive. The urge to find and cherish little known artists goes deeper now that there is more music to choose from. Publicity-wise, Ariel Rosenberg, aka Ariel Pink, was lucky to be plucked out of that world and become associated with and released by Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label. People have been looking for an angle on his tunefully fucked up style for a long time. Now that his most high-profile release is coming out at the back-end of the chillwave fad, hype-machine morons from the blogs all the way up to Pitchfork are foaming at the mouth to label him the “forefather of chillwave.” As nice as chillwave is on the surface, this should be considered an insult to Pink. He doesn’t hide behind his music, but uses it as a way to express personality. His is a genre-less amalgamation of whatever seems fun at the time, not a primped and proper refinement of a specific influence taken to an extreme. He’s not even indie, passing up the chance to be self-important and essential for being wild and frivolous. So what is Ariel Pink, then?
Who fuckin’ cares? Why can’t he just be another musician doing what he enjoys, releasing his most interesting results? Much like the simple either-you-like-it-or-you-don’t dichotomy of my early childhood categorization scheme, Ariel Pink is either going to appeal to you or he won’t. Whether he does or not is likely to boil down to how seriously you take yourself. Recorded in a real studio with his new full-time band, Before Today is easily his most hi-fi record to date, and eschewing the ultra-lo-fi of his previous work will undoubtedly welcome more listeners under his umbrella. This is only relatively speaking, as there’s still a slightly muddy overall quality and some pastiche qualities that separate it from most studio-based recordings. In the past, the lo-fi recording worked to unify Pink’s eclectic songs. Now, the forceful confidence of the band and Pink’s command of an extensive assortment of voices is enough to blend it all together into a unique voice without coming off like a gang of jokey genre whores.
The introductory “Hot Body Rub” invites you in as Pink does his best Eddie Murphy doing James Brown. Much of the music is rooted in cheesey R&B and keyboard pop, represented most purely in a rerecorded version of the sexy come-on “Can’t Hear My Eyes”. But this is just the point of departure and return. The sumptuous lead single “Round and Round” pushes a Euro-disco feel through the verses before dropping the anthemic group chorus and the swinging funk of “Beverly Kills” is punctuated by ethereal synth and the sounds of Tarzan swinging through the proceedings on a vine. “Butthouse Blondies” is some seriously heavy buttrock, and would seem no more than an excuse to sing “butthouse blondies” in a bunch of different voices if it wasn’t so damn infectious. “Little Wig” is some alternative universe surf-punk, and “Menopause Man” brings back some of the creep from tracks like “West Coast Calamities” and “Every Night I Die at Miyagis”.
Where the bass used to sound Casio, it now sounds supple and it’s probably the single biggest difference in sound between Pink’s past and present. The only thing missing from Before Today are some of Pink’s more herky jerky compositional tendencies, and the transition from version 1.0 to 2.0 doesn’t really lose anything that was essential about Pink’s music in the first place. It’s just in a more bulbous and highly concentrated form now. Before Today is another fun Ariel Pink pop/rock record, more solidly constructed than any of his past efforts. Even more importantly, it’s also more joyously musical than most full-lengths that have been coming out in recent years, aware not of self and scene but only of the fact that music is fun and feels good. Pink has the chops of a rock star and the charisma of a pop star. It’s nice to see him taking a stab at increasing his exposure while maintaining his weirdness.