"I don't have any ambitions," declares Ariel Pink. "I suppose I'd like to retire while I'm still in my 20s. That takes money. I want money. What else is there?"
Well, music, love, and sex, for three. But like just about everything from the mouth or keyboard of Ariel Pink (born Ariel Rosenberg in 1978), those words should be taken with mounds of salt. The reason you should care about this sonic misfit from L.A. is the beguiling way he erodes pop music's hoary mannerisms into alternative-universe chart fodder.
The bedroom producer whose full nom de musique is Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti flummoxes audiophiles with his errant (de)compositions. He creates a distinctively paradoxical sound—sugary and spiky, lush and degraded, as if the tape is crumbling even as it picks up his emissions. Strange as it is, Ariel's music has antecedents in rock's lo-fi underground (Half Japanese, Tall Dwarfs). And, as with Ween or the Frogs, Ariel's baffling ambiguity begs the questions: genuine studio idiot savant or a faux outsider artist? Egomaniac or a master of self-deflation?
These questions will be endlessly debated. What really matters is the arrival of House Arrest (on Animal Collective's Paw Tracks imprint), the third and best excavation of Ariel's backlog of 500 songs. It's a fantastic follow-up to 2005's critical fave Worn Copy, which brilliantly bestowed bubblegum Beefheart ditties, sublimely ridiculous prog epics, and uncanny tributes to Kraut-rock legends Can.
House Arrest, though, is Ariel's most accomplished stab at painting the Top 40 (circa 1970) in his own garishly muted hues. Over 14 songs, he projects a patina of poignancy through flawed fidelity, refracting simple pop pleasures through funhouse mirrors of warped production values. Ariel's songs can be as buoyant as Os Mutantes's or as lugubrious as Smog's. He can emulate the Left Banke's effusive psych-pop classicisms or wax dorky with Ween-like comedy vocals and progadelic bombast. Ariel also has a soft spot for Beach Boys vocal embellishments, although he bathes them in hazy reverb. It's not impossible to envision him husbanding his surprisingly dulcet melodic gifts into mellow AM gold. In fact, "Helen" is one Jon Brion remix away from radio ubiquity.
Which leads me to wonder: Does Ariel Pink ever strive to write a hit single?
"Always!" he exclaims. "Can't you tell? AOR Billboard Top 40."
Again with the facetiousness. Or is it? To get to the root of Ariel's attitude, we need to plumb his initial motivations for entering this nasty business. "Feelings of revenge and scorn for years drove me to lock myself up and record," Ariel recalls. "I was inspired by fringe artists and American pop culture—I wanted to be a rock star in elementary school. I later became fixated on the idea when family upheavals became the norm. It became a defense mechanism and an escape.
"Learning how to play and record came slowly over time and much later. What spurred me on... [was] confidence in maladjustment."
Said maladjustment has led to absurdly prolific and distinctive songwriting methods. Still, Ariel is torn about meddling with his eccentric recording approach (using mouth sounds to emulate percussion, eschewing ProTools/software programs for a Yamaha MT8X recorder).
"I barely have the means to record with an eight-track these days; barely have enough time or privacy," Ariel laments. "My gear has generally been handed down to me or borrowed, but I seem to be at a loss... no car, no money, sharing an apartment with my mom... Of course, that shit never got in my way before. I think I'm having writer's block. I think all the attention and sudden touring might have zapped my creative drive temporarily; but I'll bounce back, sooner or later."
It seems like only a matter of time before Ariel is besieged by major-label A&Rs. I foresee bigger bands asking him to open for them on tours, Rolling Stone and Spin offering cover stories, Muzak™ asking to re-record his songs. After bitching about not receiving "a buck" for all his efforts and nixing my grandiose forecast, he confesses, "I'm not even slightly famous. It's all hype! I'm a flash in the pan."
Tomorrow Ariel may think he'll be bigger than the Beatles. Regardless of his shifting self-esteem, he seems destined to become a revered cult icon. He may even be able to move out of his mom's pad.