Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti - Mature Themes (4AD)
Ariel Pink, R. Stevie Moore – Ku Klux Glam (Stroll On Records)
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, live at the Fonda Theatre, Los Angeles, October 5th 2012
I didn’t get on with Mature Themes at first, I must admit. Found it goofy and throwaway and a bit fussed-over-sounding. The herky-jerky whimsy of opener “Kinski Assassin” had me flashing on bubblegum psych like Strawberry Alarm Clock and New Wave novelties by Split Enz and Cardiacs.... minor league stuff, you dig. I did seriously wonder if Ariel Pink’s reign as my favourite musician of the last eight years had finally fizzled out. But Mature Themes snuck up on me, and now I love not only “Kinski Assassin” but even more slight and silly ditties like “Schnitzel Boogie” (inspired by a favorite fast food joint) and “Pink Slime” (an ode to that meat-derived colloid used to bulk up burgers).
Masked by the archness and frivolity of some of the material is the fact that this album is Ariel at his most open-hearted and forlorn. Several of these songs—including the exquisitely melodic title track and “Farewell American Primitive,” which at one point was also going to be title track until “Mature Themes” displaced it—seem to address his break-up with long-time partner and pop performance artiste Geneva Jacuzzi, albeit with varying degrees of obliqueness and directness.
So, I suspect, does the gorgeous “Baby”, a romantic-erotic reverie (“holding hands and making love”) whose elegaic afterglow vibe suggests that the beloved is attainable only in memory. That song’s slow Seventies soul mode and raspy vocal is a departure for Ariel. It shows how he uses other styles and other voices to express his own feelings. Pop as ventriloquism or costume-play, maybe. It verges close to the parody zone: comedy-with-music-elements shows such as Mighty Boosh or Flight of the Conchords, whose mock-loverman “Business Time” isn’t so far from “Baby”.
Joking aside, it’s a fine example of Pink’s experimental side, which also crops up on Mature Themes with the slinky ghost-funk of “Live It Up” and the swirling ambient kaleidoscape of “Nostradamus & Me”.
Seeing Pink and his Haunted Graffiti bandmates at the Fonda Theater in LA was an odd experience: a gig that wasn’t very good, but that stuck in the memory much more than if it had been a straightforward, well-played rendition of the songs. There was something off about the sound, a grating edge, exacerbated by Ariel feeding his voice through a battery of FX much of the time. He seemed to be in a foul mood, and every so often would literally snarl at the crowd through the FX, like a cat having a hissy fit. But perhaps this is just his technique, to put the audience on edge (the other time I saw him perform, in New York circa Before Today, he stormed off stage). There seemed to be a desire for the concert to be more than just another show by a middling-level indiepop band, watched with impassive pleasure by its dedicated but compact audience. Towards the end Ariel muttered darkly that the gig we were witnessing was “Winterland, 1978.... Kezar Pavilion, 1981.” In other words, the last ever gig by a legendary band that immediately afterwards split up (in those cases, the Sex Pistols and Throbbing Gristle). (Both of whom actually reformed much later, but that’s by the by). What struck me again was the ventriloquistic or play-acted aspect: someone trying to express himself, his authentic, innermost desires or frustrations, through this second-hand language, in this instance all those read-about and handed-down Myths from rock history.
A fascinating, conflicted figure. “Step inside my timewarp” he sings, on one Mature Themes song, and I’ll be doing that for a good while to come, I hope.