Introducing: The Ariel Pink Sound
In 2004, Animal Collective released, via their label Paw Tracks, a genuine curio out unto the world. It was the first publicly-available record for Ariel Pink, seemingly some self-styled idiot-savant from Los Angeles. Ariel 'Pink' Rosenberg had been hand-making and self-releasing a series of cassettes and CDRs in microscopic amounts, and The Doldrums marked his coming-out party.
The first thing the world noticed is that The Doldrums sounded utterly horrendous: a sludgy, muddy, cruddy, soupy sound in which every audio input —guitar, bass, vocals, human-beatboxed rhythms— was semi-obscured in such ultra-lo-fi mire. At first, the assumption may be that the record is suffering due to such a sound. Rosenberg's songs are, after all, entirely melodic, with cheesy '80s-sounding synths and vocals that seemed to be half-ironic evocations of Hall and Oates. A shinier presentation on par with his heroes could serve Rosenberg better, right?
Repeated exposure puts paid to such traditional notions of 'good' music. Soon, the sound of Ariel Pink started to make sense: it wasn't a handicap, but a blessing; wasn't just the dressing, but the music's essence.
Rosenberg had stumbled onto this sound by way of rudimentary equipment: working with a four-track recorder, the home-recording enthusiast painstakingly 'built' songs in piecemeal form. Not a gifted enough instrumentalist to play tunes the whole way through, he constructed them bit by bit. With every new layer, he had to 'bounce' the tracks down, reducing their audio quality as he went.
That soon-to-be-signature sound, then, became its own highly-suggestive trick of audiology; a kind of musical time-travel. It effectively suggested a cassette left open to the elements: tape warping in the sun, gathering dust (and with it, hiss), and being quietly eaten away at by oxygen. With his influences steeped in unfashionable pop-cultural relics (Hall and Oates, Michael Jackson, 10CC, Fleetwood Mac), Rosenberg made the ruse complete: these the sounds of the buried '80s, once-dominant pop-cultural artifacts now excavated from landfill. The lo-fi haze was like an indistinct memory: cloudy and dreamy with nostalgia, yet dangerous with the quiet dread of time passing, and death growing nearer.
A Contextual Classic
This sound, so unique upon The Doldrums' release, would go on to be widely imitated, and infinitely influential. Whole genres —like the blog-driven electro-nostalgia trip, chillwave— arose in its wake. An album that sounded godawful, to so many, on its release, was cast in a light that grew kinder with each passing year.
The fact that Ariel Pink achieved bona fide crossover in 2010, with the first-ever 'proper studio album' for the project, Before Today, only added to the retrospective fondness as the first-ever work for this increasingly-beloved figure.
And, listening to The Doldrums with years of hindsight is a far different experience to that first frightening encounter with the LP in 2004. Where, back then, this strange record from this unknown figure was a trip into the bizarre, now there's a warm familiarity to the Ariel Pink sound.
Where the production was cited as an obstacle on release —The Doldrums was met with a reaction part quizzical, mostly critical— it's now anything but. And, following on from such, the quality of Rosenberg's songwriting really does get to shine: "Among Dreams" is jukebox-friendly and falsetto funny; "For Kate I Wait" is an '80s stadium-anthem drowning in a swamp; "Envelopes Another Day" repeats its chorus ad infinitum; even the barely-hanging-together, 11-minute shuffle "The Ballad of Bobby Pyn" feels like a forerunner to Here We Go Magic's rambunctious, six-years-later anthem "Collector."
This leaves The Doldrums in the position of what we might call a 'contextual classic.' Whatever its charms and strengths may be in their own right, they're amplified by all that happened, musically, in the years thereafter.
Record Label: Paw Tracks
Release Date: October 11, 2004