Lost in Music
Ariel Pink Hears the Hit Parade Through Very Odd Ears
“I would go to restaurants with my parents as a kid,” says a very sleepy Ariel Pink between yawns over the phone from his home in California. “And I’d go to the bathroom and the heater would be humming, and I’d hear a song with it.”
The 27-year-old Pink, nee Rosenberg, is a Los Angeles boy who has clearly spent a little too much time in the sunshine. Like a walking Time-Life collection, Pink seems to have absorbed the much-maligned history of melodic soft pop simply through breathing the California air. (“I wasn’t even really aware I was smitten with music,” he says of his childhood.) You could imagine Pink songs like “West Coast Calamities” in the background as you fretted over which brand of detergent to buy.
Except for the fact that his music is coated in a glistening home-studio honey of echo and reverb so thick and muffling that it would send any sane producer screaming from the control room. And his paltry recording tools make everything sound like a demo left to warp and collect cat dander behind the couch for a decade or two. It’s this mixture of song and noise that’s begun to attract notice from people (such as the alt-rock press, which perennially bends over backward for this sort of thing) who wouldn’t be caught dead listening to Christopher Cross.
“I started writing stuff when I was like 11 or 12,” Pink says. “The first song was called ‘Sexy Lady,’ and I just nicked the ‘Dancing With Myself’ theme. But I couldn’t exactly play it for anybody, you know? I still have those songs. I’d kinda like to keep them for a rainy day when I’m not feeling inspired to write anymore.”
Pink’s three widely available albums to date—2004’s The Doldrums, 2005’s Worn Copy, and the “new” House Arrest (all Paw Tracks)—were recorded in a compulsive haze of home taping around the turn of the millennium. He claims to have a Prince-like backlog of hundreds of tunes, some released in gorgeously packaged CD-Rs, his bedroom-closet catalog lurking just under the pudding skin of popular music.
Though he started out making “noise and really avant-garde stuff . . . of course I wasn’t able to play pop/rock right off the bat,” Pink has claimed elsewhere that he gorged on MTV growing up, and you can hear the sedimentary knowledge of endless hours of mid-’80s lite-pop in his music. (“Flying Circles,” on House Arrest, could be an outtake from a Howard Jones album.) He’s got an obvious ear for a hook, clearly values the hummable and memorable, and his talent for pastiche runs deep. Nearly every Pink review contains some variation on the “AM radio transmitting from the bottom of an aquarium” metaphor.
Of course, according to Pink, his music has absolutely nothing to do with pop. (There’s even a gratuitous slam at Avril Lavigne at one point.) “Writing pop songs? No I don’t see it as that,” he says. “It’s just a catalog of what I want to hear, which is something I’ve never heard before. That’s all. So it’s really a process of experimenting with different modes of recording and writing music, just to end up somewhere that I’ve never heard really before.” And then he’ll say something like, “Michael Jackson was my first big influence . . . and I can’t shake that.”
But Pink is capable of startling flights of whimsy that could only come from someone with little regard for “proper” songwriting who just happens to be into writing songs. “Trepanated Earth,” the opening track on Worn Copy, contrasts long stretches of kozmik synth drool with the sudden intrusion of shouted doggerel (“the world is a pile of DOG SHIT”), before gently rocking like he’s opening for the Hotel California tour at the Simi Valley Civic Center. When he’s on, Pink sounds like Jamaican dub genius Keith Hudson let loose on the playlist of 100.7 FM, the Bay.
On the other hand, his lesser songs—like those of Guided by Voices and the Jesus and Mary Chain before him—would shiver nakedly without the cloak of sunstroke effects, and his editing is incontinent or nonexistent. “It’s just practice,” he says. “What you hear on the albums is just my first attempt at whatever I’m trying to go for. And I don’t really revisit that kind of stuff to hone it and perfect it. I would stop [making music] when I felt like I was just going through the motions . . . getting better at some pre-arranged approach.”
That kind of variability probably doesn’t matter much to Pink’s burgeoning cult—and cult music is what this is—but for the other 99.9 percent of planet Earth, it might, even with Pink’s fetching way with a smeared, heavily processed guitar tone. Shouldn’t you just be listening to the Cars?
Probably. But it’s also probably a dumb idea to write Pink off entirely when he can pen something as gorgeous as “The Ballad of Bobby Pyn”; anyone with ears should be able to hear past the outsider-art pretext to the golden nugget lurking within. Pink’s music is perhaps best described as gentle flurries, less extreme noise terror and more like a down pillow squeezed until it explodes. It isn’t about craft or competence so much as an obsession—House Arrest is either a sly pun or a pained commentary on the life of the bedroom taper, maybe both—to get the sounds in his head out, regardless of audience.
“I’m one of those people that’s really bad at life planning,” he says. “I put all my eggs in one basket from when I was a little kid, to the neglect of just about every other thing. I thought I’d be doing something wrong if I was going to be acknowledged on any level. And now I have to rethink everything.”
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