As his band traveled through a lightning storm somewhere in the American Midwest, Ariel “Pink” Rosenberg yelled at me over the telephone. It was April 2005, and I was holed up in the spare bedroom of a rented house in York, PA, repeatedly posing pre-prepared interview questions in order to be heard over the noise at the other end of the line. The tape recorder exploded my hesitant entreaties and Rosenberg’s replies to a monstrous, grotesque volume, his bandmates snickering as their leader’s answers vacillated from measured to unhinged, sometimes in the space of several minutes; the transmission frequently trembled, whinged by sharp bursts of static. And while some of that exchange survives here, what I came away from the conversation with was a fascination for, a confusion about, and a fear of the guy. I was fascinated by the depth and breadth of his musical scholarship; confused because I couldn’t begin to fathom how much of his persona might be a put-on and how much might be genuine mental instability; and afraid because our chat, despite a separation of hundreds of miles, was the most uncomfortable and unsettling telephone interview I’d ever conducted with any musician. (A decade later, this still holds true.)
Speaking of confusion. The period spanning from this Los Angeles native’s mid-1990s recordings through to just before the studio sessions for 2010’s Before Today — what we might think of as Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti Mach 1.0 — the man’s whole trip thrived on confusion. The incomprehensibly off-color interview features. The temporal morass of a massive, incessantly re-upped catalogue where recording dates strayed further from the time of creation with each new label and re-issue. (For this feature, I limited myself to the highest-profile releases.) The hit or miss live sets. Oh, and the actual music: rickety, irresistible tunes seemingly held together with scotch tape, twine, tinsel, and dog-eared copies of Billboard circa 1970 through 1988 — a burnt, inexhaustible shock’n’awe of blurted keyboards, mashed guitar chords, schizophrenic vocals, and mouth percussion standing in for actual drums. The appeal isn’t difficult to suss out, of course: At its finest, Rosenberg’s catalogue gets by on no-filter candor, adolescent gross-out humor, and grand-slam hooks that will rattle endlessly around in your skull, sometimes triggering odd associations. For listeners of a certain age “Are You Gonna Look After My Boys?” from Scared Famous, is equally likely to evoke DeBarge’s “Rhythm Of The Night,” the Goldie Hawn/Kurt Russell dramedy Overboard, and Kramer’s pet name for his genitals on Seinfeld. For musos and hipsters alike, here was a chance to have their cake and eat it, too: the muffled cool of cult pop married to national indie-store distribution through (for a while) Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks imprint.
If Before Today kicked off Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti Mach 2.0, which found Rosenberg and his cohort working in actual studios, 2012’s Mature Themes appears to have capped it. The difference? Actual drums, less murk, sharper song construction, and an apparent awareness that the world beyond the bloggerati might be tuning in: Today’s creamy “Can’t Hear My Eyes” and Themes’ sultry baby swung for the fences hard enough to excuse the surrounding hijinks. With last year’s pom pom — Mach 3.0 — Rosenberg had delivered what was for all intents and purposes a twisted children’s album for adults while ratcheting his media trolling up to the level, in the words of a friend, of “an indie-rock Ann Coulter.” He time-shared a bizarro Gidget boner with rapper/singer Azealia Banks. He was rumored to be contributing to Madonna’s Rebel Heart — then put his foot in mouth. He slagged off Grimes. With every passing month, as the man’s profile expands and his persona becomes less defensible — even as the song craft that brought him to our collective attention in the first place accrues replay value. Even tougher: the work of ranking what he’s achieved over the past two decades, but I certainly gave it my best shot.
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