A Californian leftfield lo-fi mainstay, Ariel Pink has been recording resolutely non-commercial music since the early 2000s, initially on Animal Collective‘s Paw Prints label. Now signed to 4AD for album number nine, a more polished incarnation is unveiled.
This is an album that is overtly, almost overwhelmingly glossy. From opener Hot Body Rub’s sultry, slick sax-and-funk smoothness to the laid back, often cheesy synths on the likes of Fright Night (Nevermore), Beverly Kills and Can’t Hear My Eyes, the sound is heavily produced, and quite bland. There is a frustrating slightness to tracks like Bright Lit Blue and Reminiscences, both of which fail to develop, the former lyrically and the latter (an instrumental piece) musically.
As is perhaps to be expected from an album produced by Quincy Jones‘s grandson (Sunny Levine) and Rik Pekkonen, who has previously worked with Bill Withers, the sound is very much of the 1980s. Hot Body Rub, Round And Round and Beverly Kills, though described by Pink as “West Coast Funk”, also strongly recall the East Coast of Miami Vice. LA is specifically referenced in both Beverly Kills and in the cheesy line from Can’t Hear My Eyes: “I want a lady as beautiful as a sunset on the strip”. This is not the edgy ’80s. Fright Night has echoes of Deacon Blue and Prefab Sprout, while the frictionless sound reaches its insipid nadir on Can’t Hear With My Eyes, all easy listenin’ soft drums, awful bland synth sound and whined vocals.
The touches of weirdness that remain come as some relief; oddities like the curious “popping” noises interspersed through L’estat (Acc. To The Widow’s Maid), Butt House Blondies’ slightly camp and very diluted version of a kind of The Horrors or Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster darkness, say, or the wacky tone on the mostly enjoyable Little Wig.
Lyrically the most interesting track is Menopause Man. Its take on gender roles and sexuality – “Make me maternal / Fertile woman / Make me menstrual / Menopause man”, and later “Rape me / Castrate me / Make me gay” – seems genuinely experimental, and puts some interesting ideas out there. Otherwise the words appear to play second fiddle to the music or, rather, the production and tone of the music, through which individual instruments usually fail to make much impression.
The album ends with Revolution’s A Lie. Here, frustratingly, is a glimpse of a different, more satisfying direction that might have been taken. Its declamatory, mysterious voices and vocal that echoes and fades in and out immediately mark it out as of more substance than what has come before. Couple this with the Krautrock-style motorik beat and the breathy little “huh” sounds and gunshot-type rattles that punctuate it and it becomes a last-minute highlight.
If this album was intended as Ariel Pink’s calling-card to the mainstream then it is difficult to think that it will be received as such. No longer the challenging, lo-fi music of yore, what has arrived in its place doesn’t have the individuality or character to sustain longer lasting interest.