Live Music + Gig Reviews

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti @ KOKO, London

13 May 2011

Ariel Pink may yet become one of the true madcap, unpredictable visionaries of contemporary music. Has has the potential to rival Captain Beefheart or Frank Zappa for sheer creative weirdness. Pink has recently been busy cultivating a reputation for petulant onstage behaviour but there was mercifully little evidence of this during this excellent show.

That being said, there is definitely a calculated waywardness in both Pink’s demeanour and his delivery. His music is intricate, often complex and airbrushed to replicate an FM radio sound, yet the way Pink himself approaches the material is nonchalant and scattershot. He can sing in tune when he wishes, but more often prefers to wander away from the correct pitch. He is the nominal leader of an exceedingly professional, well-drilled band but often appears as if he might rather be somewhere else.

Over the course of a concise but powerful set, this gradually begins to make sense. Pink’s whole raison d’etre seems to be to start from a template of pristine pop perfection and to impose unexpected oddities and fault lines upon it. These disorientating features in the foreground, often coming from his vocal delivery, hide the fact that the music is adventurous, meticulously constructed and gloriously unfashionable. Beneath Pink’s lo-fi veneer and the uncomfortable gaps between songs is a music that contains everything seasoned music critics prefer to disdain. There’s a laudable technical proficiency, considered arrangement as opposed to raw spontaneity, the capacity to cope with numerous asymmetrical time signatures and a polished sheen to the sound that at times approaches the studio perfection of later Steely Dan.

The music is certainly also heavily tinted with nostalgia. The groovy backbeat introduction to Menopause Man calls to mind Michael Jackson‘s Billie Jean. Elsewhere, the reference points are nowhere near as universally lauded – there are hints at the radio pop of 10cc or even Christopher Cross, of Ride Like The Wind fame. Yet Pink’s quirkiness, humour, peculiar lyrics and shambling onstage demeanour (there’s plenty of gleeful air guitar playing) help it rise above being a hipster version of Guilty Pleasures. It’s also worth recognising that there are few bands out there quite as adaptable and comfortable as Haunted Graffiti. The rhythm section is solid but unshowy, and the guitarists, doubling on synths, help craft the detailed textures.

Inevitably, Round And Round (a joy either in spite of or because of its resemblance to Fergus Sings The Blues by Deacon Blue) is the audience favourite but the whole show sustains the same level of sophisticated pop brilliance by way of a variety of twists and turns. There are sly references to stadium rock and new wave. The irresistible squelch of Beverley Kills is effective in spite of itself and there are fascinating reworkings of early Pink demos including the summery sixties strum of Helen and the strange Oceans Of Weep. These maintain the intrigue of Pink’s original recordings, but significantly improve upon the sound quality and the execution.

Pink may have disciplined himself slightly for this full band project – and, as a result, it’s not hard to appreciate his argument that the recent Before Today album should be seen as his proper debut. What is impressive, however, is how true he has stayed to his original idiosyncratic vision whilst perfecting the context that surrounds it. There is undoubtedly more to come from this versatile, creative unit.

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