Album Review: Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today

[4AD; 2010]

I think a lot of people really wanted to like Before Today, keen on gaining a more accessible glimpse of an artist first signed by Animal Collective and championed by a fierce but largely underground following ever since. After all, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti released a freakin’ greatest hits album last year —surely there’s something more to his music than the charges of schlocky retroism hurled by Mr. Pink’s detractors and shouts of “you’re just deaf to his genius!” from his defenders. So everyone downloaded his album and promptly agreed that they loved it (myself included, of course). But after a couple of weeks of constant listening, it faded to the background of my library as other, newer material found its way to my iPod. In turns of dispassionate critique, that’s probably a good thing; I haven’t listened to this album in a while (well, a few weeks, but in Internet-time that’s practically a year) and the initial eager ‘official criticism’ has died down. It’s been long enough, at least for me, to consider the music on its own terms.

As it turns out, I still like it. A lot. Technically speaking, Before Today lives up to its hype; the production updates afforded by a proper recording studio are a welcome presence here, granting Pink the technology to distill his brand of wistful nostalgia into engaging, almost surreal moments of organic, genuine emotion. Yes, the unabashedly retro sound will sound familiar to longtime listeners, but that wouldn’t explain the album’s wide appeal were this mere CVS music. No, there’s more to this music than idle nostalgia; in fact, the album’s most impressive feature is its ability to capture various moods from long “before today” and by some alchemy have them sound distinctly unique and modern.

“Hot Body Rub” opens the album on a hurried note, the sounds of airplanes taking off and cars zooming by gradually giving way to some saxophone-heavy Shaft music. “Bright Lit Blue Skies” follows, and it provides the first of the album’s many psychedelic flourishes, punctuating its verses with druggy harmonies and a wah-wah guitar’s distant warbling. “L’estat (acc. to the widow’s maid)” veers off into something resembling of Montreal territory, with its laying of whimsically dark lyrics (something about a lovesick maid and a corpse) over an unexpectedly pretty, synth-fueled melody. “Fright Night” sounds like something you’d find on “Young Turks”-era Rod Stewart’s Pandora station, until a chorus of TV-jingle doo-wops takes the vibe to considerably weirder places. Lead single “Round and Round” finds Pink channeling the resigned calm of ’80s new wave while avoiding the preciousness of so many of that genre’s imitators (an especially impressive feat considering the song’s singalong lyrics like “And we’ll dazzle ’em all, h-hold on”). “Beverly Kills,” the album’s most confident track twists a Miami Vice atmosphere into something more sinister as a stern unknown voice repeatedly intones, “I can’t stop the press.”

The spaced-out “Little Wig,” crunchy guitar-rock jam “Butt-House Blondies” (a title with all the subtlety of the song’s wailing guitar riffs—which is to say, happily, that it lacks any), and catchy ridiculousness of “Menopause Man” maintain the quirky, excited tone through the rest of Before Today, though I’d be lying if I said the trippy, reverb-heavy rock that defines the album’s second half didn’t start to grow a little tedious towards the end. Fortunately, “Revolution’s a Lie” provides a delightfully delirious finale to this collection of fun, tightly-constructed pastiches. Ariel Pink is firmly committed to his retro sound, but on Before Today he proves that he can do more than just evoke the past; he can make it work for him now, today, over and over, “round and round.” Let’s hope this is just the beginning of a strange new step on a not-quite-new but certainly strange artist’s journey.