If another artist boasted of working with "Quincy Jones' grandson," it'd be a moment of unintentional hilarity, a desperate clutch at any kind of name-recognition that could, theoretically, help sell the music. But, the fact that Ariel Pink is working with Sunny Levine —who is, indeed, Quicy Jones' grandson— isn't some kind of D-grade celebrity trafficking, but an almost perfect piece of pop-cultural serendipity.
Throughout the '00's, as he issued his seemingly-unending vaults of home-made recordings under the name Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti record, the Los Angelino analogue-tape alchemist (real name: Ariel Rosenberg) performed a particular perversion of popular-music. Running old, familiar, fading pop-song tropes —pulled from a lifetime of soaking in Hall & Oates, Fleetwood Mac, Michael Jackson, Steely Dan, Roxy Music et al— through his dense, druggy, foggy, muddy, utterly cruddy lo-fi sound, Rosenberg has amplified the mass-cultural nostalgia associated with past hits. His every song is both an exercise in nostalgia and a commentary thereon; a kind of time-travel trick that creates a sense of mock 'historicism' by creating a sound that's pre-aged, arriving already warped and covered in dust and neglect.
If he'd worked with Quincy Jones, there would've been a danger that Rosenberg would get a little too slick, go a little too close to approximating his source. Working with Jones' grandson, then, keeps things at a perfect remove. And Before Today fits that bill: the first Ariel Pink album made in a studio, it still sounds mysterious and distant and bizarre, but it doesn't need a pall of tape-hiss to achieve the effect.
Dazzling Us All
The result, with Before Today, is Ariel Pink's best album yet; even if saying that feels essentially anticlimactic. After all, this isn't just the first Ariel Pink album made in a studio, but the first Ariel Pink album ever really made as an album. After six (or so, depending on how you count) records assembled from Rosenberg's vast vaults of old recordings, this is the first time he's ever sat down to make an entire LP, wholly from scratch.
The result, as Ariel Pink's best album yet, takes Rosenberg's many already-familiar quirks and nails them in song form: "Fright Night (Nevermore)" all John Carpenter-esque synths, "Thriller" dance-moves, and sinking feeling of inescapable dread; "Can't Hear My Eyes" all yacht-rock harmonies and glissando synths; "Beverly Kills" knocking out slap-bass funk and hysterical falsetto; "Little Wig" all rock-opera ridiculousness, baroque piano, and prog-esque shifts in tempo and key.
And then there's "Round and Round," a song that seems out to effectively introduce Ariel Pink to, well, if not the masses, at least masses more humans than would've ever heard of him thus far. A bonafide pop hit in wolf's clothing, it marshals the elastic bass funk and soft-pop harmonizing recurring throughout in special ways. Like Hot Chip's breakout hit single, "Over and Over," it posits repetition as the natural state of the song; Rosenberg literally singing of circularities like "merry go round/we go up and around" and "we die, and we live/and we're born again."
Where, however, Ariel Pink's approximations of pop-hits have felt, thus far, as if delivered in quotation marks, "Round and Round" truly lets it hang out. Maybe it's the production, maybe it's Rosenberg having grown as a performer, maybe it's the accruing of time and wisdom, or maybe he's just feeling really earnest all of a sudden. But when he and his Haunted Graffiti outfit sing —over and over again, of course— "Hold on, I'm calling/calling you back to the ball/and we'll dazzle them all," you can't help but believe his sincerity. This time, the gloves are off, the lo-fi fog has lifted, and Rosenberg's talent as composer has never been clearer.
Record Label: 4AD
Release Date: June 8, 2010