04 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #4

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Mature Themes (4AD, 2012)

This album presents a frustrating puzzle for me: while the songs are clearly melodic, and Ariel Pink clearly has songwriting talent, there are tons of touches and ideas on this album that are so awful they ruin pretty much any enjoyment I can get out of it. I should probably be more forgiving, and note that it could just be a case of Pink's personal aesthetic colliding with my own. But this album sticks in my craw. Here's the thing: I have no idea if this dude is trying to express anything in his music at all.

For starters, Pink sings like a tape-manipulated robot. When I first listened to this album, his vocal style on most of the songs here uncomfortably reminded me of one of the singers on Zappa's We're Only In It For The Money. And on that album, the singing and approach to the material were both clearly mocking - it often sounded like a bunch of sardonic chipmunks were sneering at you over a nasty parody of commercialized psychedelia, which is what it was. The difference is that Pink sings the lead vocals like that without sounding like he's joking at all, and it has the unfortunate effect of making him sound like he's completely disinterested in his own music. Granted, it's hard to know how you could really care about your own music singing songs with lyrics like "Blonde seizure bombshells and the blowjobs of death," but it's also hard to know how you could even let yourself write something that stupid, much less release it. I mean, that's not inspired, genius stupidity, the type of stupidity that fuels so many great rock songs - that's just lame.

Coupled with the fact that these songs are astonishingly campy and seem very interested in making ironically moronic in-jokes no one else will understand, it just makes me think this guy wants to make the kitschiest music he possibly can, and I find it impossible to care about that. There are so many songs on this album that just sound like novelty songs without the novelty. ("Schnitzel Boogie" excepted, because that's a total novelty song. It's also terrible.) Cornball, '80's-tastic Speak and Spell synthesizer tones abound on this album, which makes the music sound even more insincere than it already does. Too many songs here sound completely cheesy (not to mention draggy - Pink's drummer somehow makes midtempo sound as lifeless as a sludge metal dirge, and even the best songs here seem like they go on longer than they do), and despite the unmistakable melodic craft that's gone into most of the songs, I just get the impression that this guy doesn't have much to say. Because these songs are shallow and meaningless.

Despite all my reservations about the album, there are a few good songs. "Only In My Dreams," in addition to featuring a Pink vocal where he sounds like he believes in the song for once, could have been a mid-70's Todd Rundgren single if it was livelier. "Driftwood" revolves around a great, suspenseful bass line. "Nostradamus and Me" sounds like an ambient, yet songful improvement on the keyboard experiments Rundgren was doing in 1974. And the understated, hazy Joe and Donnie Emerson cover "Baby," which sounds completely divorced from the rest of the album, may be the best song here. Underground R&B singer Dam Funk is a guest vocalist, and imbues the cover with two things: total commitment to the song, and soul. Pink could learn a lesson from that.

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