(Note: This video is missing the last three songs)
“I’m Davey Jones, enjoy the music!”
Welcome to the second installment of Lo-Fi Hi-Fives, an examination of music produced outside of the traditional studio system. Today: Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti’s arresting House Arrest
Ariel Pink (Rosenberg) was born the son of a Jewish gastroenterologist. Working at a record store, Ariel developed a Tarantino-like encyclopedic knowledge of pop, absorbing everything from Michael Jackson and Top 40 hits to more obscure, experimental acts like R. Stevie Moore, Can, The Centimeters, and early The Cure. He began recording music at the age of 10, stockpiling over 500 songs on cassette tapes. From 2000 to 2003, he issued four solo albums as bootlegs on handmade CD-R under the name Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti.
In the summer of 2003, Pink passed a CD-R of The Doldrums to Animal Collective at a random gig after being introduced by a mutual friend. The Doldrums sat on the floor of the band’s van for about a week or so; one day they randomly threw it on and were immediately blown away. “Whoa, what is this?” Animal Collective bought the rights to The Doldrums along with a second album to re-release on their upstart Paw Tracks label. This is the story of that second album.
Ariel Pink’s specialty is crafting “lost” acid-drenched pop songs from the 70’s and 80’s– chart-toppers from a different dimension. As is with playing radio dial roulette, all of his albums have their share of hits and misses, but House Arrest owns the best ratio of hits to misses. He changes genre, style, and his own singing voice so fluidly that these really do sound like 14 songs from 7 or 8 forgotten groups.
The first two tracks are meta songs about songs; the infectious enthusiasm and skillful instrumentation on display prevent things from being too pretentious. Bouncy opener “Hardcore Pops Are Fun” busts chairs and contemplates whether pop music survives beyond this mortal coil. In “Interesting Results,” a song with a ridiculously good opening, Pink laments that he’s “not going to try anymore.” Pink played every instrument on every song except for the drums on “Results” and lead guitar on “Calamities;” he is admittedly not a very good drummer so the percussion throughout this album is provided via beat-boxing.
It probably won’t take long to figure out that these lyrics aren’t very wide-reaching in scope: these songs Pink recorded while lounging about and getting high are about writing songs, lounging about, and getting high. Skip Spence shout-out “West Coast Calamities” contains some of Pink’s worst narcissistic myth-making, but it also contains the reason why so much of this album is about laying around doing nothing.
The backside of the House Arrest CD says “Allsongs recorded at home between OCT ’01-JUNE ’02.” The September 11th terrorist attacks left people with a lot of fear and questions (those were the days, huh?). In “West Coast Calamities,” Pink chauvinistic pig protagonist is thankful that the only thing Californians have to fear about is “too much breeze and sunshine” and there are no “skyscrapers to crash into or Statues of Liberty.”
9/11 is referenced in other portions: the back cover lists “Netherlands'” epic length at 8:58 but trusty Windows Media Player says 9:11; and the kaleidoscopic cover art could be folded into burning buildings in a way similar to a $20 bill. Pink has never addressed these connections, but that catastrophic event undoubtedly had an impact on him–he later recorded a 15-minute song on 9/11 called “Witch-hunt Suite for World War III.”
Straightforward bubblegum “Flying Circles” treats love as a concept as vague and difficult to describe as shapes or colors. There’s a loneliness at battle with the doo doo doo vocals that’s very Smiths meet Bangles. The drums at the end of this springy song suddenly become much more pugilistic, seguing into the disorientating “Gettin’ High in the Morning.” “Morning” features at least a dozen stops, starts, false endings, guitar freak-outs, and stoner singalongs but there is clearly a pattern– random button-mashing it is not.
And now, arguably the two best songs in Pink’s 20-year career back-to-back. The beautiful, cavernous “Helen” combines haze with soul to search for a lost one night stand. Perhaps his greatest talent as a composer is taking a piece deep, deep into left field (evidenced here by the guitar solo getting lost in a snowstorm) then bringing things back to the chorus seamlessly. (Fun Fact: Pink recently played “Helen” on The Eric Andre Show and got covered in shit. Adult Swim!)
In “Every Night I Die at Miyagi’s” the world has caught up with Pink’s lecherous anti-hero. He tries to hiccup his way out of the corner he’s backed into to no avail (“Let’s be friends/don’t say no”). Fidgety 60’s garage is backed by swooning Nilsson vocals before being interrupted in a most ridiculous fashion. “Miyagi’s” has got to be the sweetest song ever written about eating placenta.
The titular track begins with a voicemail from the lone Non-Ariel featured: his father berating him for not paying any of his parking tickets. What follows are the chronicles of Pink’s dissent into keyboard mania: he slowly loses his mind after being court ordered to stay at home. I like to think that “House Arrest” sets up a blueprint for House Arrest: the “fun” songs are placed at the beginning but things start to get weirder as the songwriter’s cabin fever grows. But most of that speculation is a fickle attempt to spice up a somewhat dull five minutes.
The bankrupt roller disco “Alisa” features Pink at his most heartfelt and also his most deceptive. “You’re in my heart, you’re in my dreams, you’re in my soul,” he sings to the title woman. Of course, this serious decree is somewhat sullied by the fact that Ariel was singing about a different woman named Helen a mere two songs before. This compact bliss shines a strobe light on the artificiality of sung love declarations.
Pink’s prolific output and nostalgia for pop music have garnered comparisons to Dayton Ohio booze hound Robert Pollard. These two men are different in many, many ways but the clearest division may be song length. Pollard always knows when an idea has overstayed it’s welcome while Pink has a tendency to run hooks into the ground. “The People I’m Not” and “Almost Waiting” both could be decent sound bytes (“People” with it’s cocky Costello and “Waiting” with it’s slacker Bee Gees), but both aren’t inventive enough to justify their run-time.
The dour “Oceans of Weep” is a weird science project; with a slow piano being backed by slimy, reptilian percussion. The final song on the CD-R version, “Weep” is a gassy Animal Collective imitation that lacks the spirit of the proceeding songs on House Arrest (though it does contain a somewhat catchy chorus). This would feel more at home on Pink’s first release The Doldrums–in that it’s fascinating that one man could create this sound collage in his bedroom but the result is not really an enjoyable listen.
Two additional songs were added to the Paw Tracks reissue and, unlike a lot of bonus tracks tacked onto the end of albums (original “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” and “Late,” I’m looking in your direction), they feel like better finales than what they stole the closer job from. “Weep” actually ends with “Netherlands'” fiddling beginnings, which leads me to believe that Pink always intended the songs to flow this way, he just ran out of room.
The nine minute and eleven second “Netherlands” contains three parts: a speculative beginning, a raucous middle, and a denouement. The first four minutes kind of drag with Pink hoping to “find the answers.” Things pick up considerably when the guitar, keyboards, and Pink’s bellows all come alive in a very bizarre way; it reminds me of a black-and-white cartoon depiction of Hell. “Netherlands” ends with nearly the same lyrics as ACT I, only the haunted vocals and keys imply that the narrator may have found what he was searching for. I usually fast-forward and listen from 4:00 to 6:30 for that creamy middle.
The Nuggets-esque “Higher and Higher” starts with nearly the same chord progression as “Hardcore Pops are Fun.” More focused than its’ stoner brother “Morning” but no less manic, this might be the catchiest tune on a record bursting at the seams with hooks. There’s also a twinge of sadness that goes hand-in-hand with the nonstop fun(“how much higher can I go/I don’t know”). “Higher” ends with a combination of choral harmonies and an alien whooshing sound, placing House Arrest somewhere between heaven and outer space.
Fifteen years since the recording of House Arrest, Ariel Pink has enjoyed shocking success. His first major label album Before Today was named Pitchfork’s 20th Best Album of 2010-2014 and contained Pitchfork’s 2nd Best Song of 2010-2014 (the electric “Round and Round”). I also heard recent single “Feels Like Heaven” at a Caribou Coffee recently. His studio records leave me a little cold but 2017’s Dedicated to Bobby Jameson is somewhat of a return to his lo-fi stomping grounds and I’ve been enjoying it very much.
Final Judgement, on the order of zero to five fingers (with a hi-five being a perfect score): 4 1/2 fingers, my pointer finger is slightly hurting after pushing a doorbell too hard.
2. Every Night I Die at Miyagis
3. Interesting Results
4. Hardcore Pops Are Fun
5. Higher and Higher
6. Flying Circles
8. Gettin’ High in the Morning
9. Almost Waiting
10. House Arrest
12. West Coast Calamities
13. The People I’m Not
14. Oceans of Weep
Next Time: David Bowie! The Beach Boys! Fleetwood Mac!