Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, "Mature Themes" (Courtesy 4AD Records )
In rock 'n' roll history there have existed lines in the sand: Polarizing musical thresholds beyond which your average listener will not step. Bob Dylan’s baffling “Self Portrait,” for example, or Lil Wayne’s rock album “Rebirth.” Muddy Waters’ psych-blues masterpiece “Electric Mud,” the entire output of Northeast family weirdos the Shaggs. Captain Beefheart and/or Frank Zappa.
The work of 34-year-old Los Angeles singer, songwriter, bandleader and memory-bending artist Ariel Pink and his band Haunted Graffiti is one such line, as evidenced by some of the songs on his wonderfully baffling new album, "Mature Themes."
On paper, it’s hard to explain the allure of discordant New Wave boogies about sausages (“Schnitzel Boogie”) and meat byproducts (“Pink Slime”), or the sheer ridiculous joy of “Symphony of the Nymphs,” a ditty about a nymphomaniac lesbian at a discotheque, a man named Dr. Mario, and a narrator named Ariel from Beverly Hills who’s a nympho too. And therein lies the threshold.
Dare you cross the line? Depends on your tolerance for music that can frustrate and confuse as often as can give joy.
Me, I come down on the side of Pink’s vision, which for sheer audacity has transfixed me since 2003, when an early member of Haunted Graffiti slipped me a CD of “Worn Copy,” his Cal Arts friend’s bedroom project. Over the years Pink’s output has wavered, but it’s always made me think.
This truth is one reason why Pink’s production style – flat but wide sound, with muffled bass tones and a rich mid-range – has become a reference point for a new generation of bedroom composers. I consider his body of work to be a musical thought experiment on a grand scale, and I’m always excited to hear where he’s taking it.
On “Mature Themes,” Pink (born Ariel Rosenberg) and his ever-tightening band Haunted Graffiti travel even further from the here-and-now and end up lost in a mystical virtual world -- music for a shag-carpeted fantasy about 1970s soft rock, or a vision of future 1982 as envisioned by a sci-fi writer in 1962. Weird time signatures abound. “Early Birds of Babylon” swirls around like a skipping prog-rock LP during a particularly tasty rhythm break. “Live It Up” sounds like a jingle for an imaginary late 1960s airline commercial. And when, in “Farewell American Primitive,” he confesses that “my thoughts make me sick at night,” the musical accompaniment suggests a theme to a 1970s sitcom.
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