Ghosts on tape: Ariel Pink

Ariel Pink has made a career out of journeying through the murk of the musical memory. Now a new album sees him emerging into the light, writes Ed Lake.

If last summer had a definitive sound, it was the indie rock movement variously designated "chillwave", "glo-fi", "hypnogogic pop". As the proliferation of names indicates this was music more written about than listened to. Then again, there's something true to the essence of the scene about that. So many bands that were really just solitary men, grown children, returning to their parents' homes in their separate regions of America to record sad, sun-damaged music in their bedroom studios. Bands only in concept, a scene only online. In fact, it wasn't even summer. September had come around before the first LP from Memory Tapes (Dayve Hawke); October for Neon Indian (Alan Palomo); January for Toro Y Moi (Chazwick Bundick).

That their real names are so fecklessly hip they might have been lifted from an Elmore Leonard novel is entirely appropriate, as is returning to this music after a little time has passed. The sound of last summer was really the memory of a sound. The archetypal chillwave track is like a Hall & Oates cassette left too long in a hot glove compartment: wobbly, hazy, bleached out. Pop music is forever nostalgic, forever poring over its own baby photos, but chillwave was unusual in that it seemed to yearn less for a particular kind of music than for a way of hearing. If you ever recorded songs off the radio as a child and played them to within an inch of their life, too young to worry about their credibility, just wrapped up in the fantastical colours of Phil Collins, Billy Ocean or Kenny Loggins, then chillwave was for you.

The likelihood is, then, that it wasn't for you. Few musical trends have ever been so narrowly generational in their appeal. If discerning older listeners hated the MOR source-material when they heard it the first time and younger ones couldn't be expected to go misty-eyed at the mere idea of an obsolete recording medium, those in their twenties and thirties were gripped by a madeleine experience of unusual potency. Actually, the apt comparison is less with Proust than with David Lynch, specifically Lost Highway. A transitional entry in the Lynch catalogue, this film begins when a saxophonist played by Bill Pullman starts receiving videotapes in the mail. The tapes contain camcorder footage of the inside of Pullman's house: his bedroom, him and his wife asleep, each new video moving closer to some horrific disclosure. Later, at a party, Pullman meets a goblin-like stalker who claims to be inside Pullman's house at that very moment. So the film progresses, deeper and deeper into the oneiric darkness to which Lynch has devoted himself. For the right demographic, playing Washed Out's Feel It All Around or Neon Indian's Deadbeat Summer seemed to place the listener on the cusp of a similarly unsettling revelation: the secret places in one's head emerging through the fuzz of an unsolicited home recording.

Nowhere is this disturbing dimension to chillwave more apparent than in the output of Ariel Pink, a Los Angeles musician whose work both preceded the scene and inspired it. He was the first to mine the unexpectedly rich seam of the Hall & Oates sound and, to date, is the only one to have found something frightening down there. Most chillwave records wallow in a woozy melancholy. Pink is the self-proclaimed "king of bad vibes". "I always wanted to make the saddest music that ever was," he has said. On a string of rambling, murky albums he perfected the art of musical caricature, finding a way to turn cheesy pop hooks into leering monsters. The track titles give an indication of temperament if not style, alternating between savagery (Creepshow, Good Kids Make Bad Grown-Ups) and curdled romanticism (For Kate I Wait, Don't Think Twice My Love).

"The pop quality in my music is so sad because it's nostalgic," Pink has said. "It is the sound of a happiness that's not there anymore." This effect is compounded by the soiled quality of what he leaves behind. His vocal performances are snuffling, studiedly puerile, drenched in echo like the voice of bad conscience in a film noir. His lyrics are typically pre-misheard gobbledegook, ready-made mondegreens. For a long time his percussion tracks were made using his mouth, not like a virtuoso beat-boxer but like a child making "pshhh" noises for cymbals. The first time you hear his songs, they sound like they've been stuck in your head all day. Then they really do get stuck. Pink is the stalker from Lost Highway: he's already inside.

More prosaically, he is an art-school drop-out who does a good impersonation of an idiot savant. Born Ariel Rosenberg in 1978 to a dentist father, he grew up in Beverly Hills, where, at the age of 10, he holed up in his room and his head and began one of the most prolific musical projects of recent memory. He started recording homages to radio jingles and new-wave pop around 1996, handing out cassettes of his work to passers-by on the street. A CD-R of some of this material made its way to the Brooklyn band Animal Collective, who put out Ariel Pink's first proper release on their then-new Paw Tracks label. Several more compilations followed, all culled from Pink's back catalogue which he claimed ran to hundreds of songs.

Critics were chilly from the start, praising Pink's knack for melody but objecting to the messiness, the hermeticism, the misanthropy of his project - all those sarcastic parodies of acts who were already jokes, breaking off mid-song in places where Pink had reused the cassette. "Are you actually adopting Daniel Johnston's career model?" sighed Pitchfork in a recent review. It didn't help that the supply of new material seemed to have dried up. His first record for Paw Tracks, as Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti and ominously titled The Doldrums, came out in 2004. By 2008, seven more albums had emerged on various labels, all compiling songs and skits recorded before 2002. Whether or not he meant to, Pink presented himself in an uncanny double guise - creatively exhausted yet so rich in material that he could keep on releasing albums forever. And if you liked his aesthetic to start with, you could hardly complain that they sounded stale.

In light of this pattern, his most recent release comes as a surprise. Before Today comprises all new recordings and some new songs. It's released on a reputable label (4AD), performed by a decent pick-up band of indie-rock journeymen, and produced somewhat conventionally: the songs have beginnings and endings, the drums are drums. It has won Pink the best reviews of his career, which is disappointing. The record abandons both the formal interest of his strange audio-scrapbook approach and much of the chthonic nastiness that made him so interesting. It seems to mark the end of psychological exploration, concerned less with memory itself than with specific musical memories.

It is, however, a very competent pop album. It has a distinctive voice, which is remarkable enough given Pink's reliance on pastiche. And he covers a lot of stylistic ground: Blue Oyster Cult on Butt-House Blondies; smooth R&B on Can't Hear My Eyes; glam on Little Wig. A few songs actually sound like future hits, as opposed the exhumed corpses of former ones. Round and Round has a power-pop chorus so uplifting that one starts to resent the yacht-rock baiting silliness of the lyrics ("Hold on, I'm calling/ Calling back to the bo-oat"). Meanwhile, Beverly Kills grafts a mock Earth, Wind and Fire chorus onto lubricious Rick James verses and a breakdown that defies description. It's a madly entertaining track that would sound perfectly fine playing on the radio. That probably means Pink that has finally arrived, in whatever sense you prefer. But I liked the Pink that was forever absent: the one stuck in the past, ransacking your childhood, sending you the tapes. Ed Lake is senior features writer at The National.

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