In the two or three years since Ariel Pink put out an album, it seems that a lot of undergroundish American music has fallen under the thrall of his curious discography. From hypnagogic pop to chillwave, and all faintly daft genres in between, Pink’s music has become a kind of touchstone for bands who specialise in distressed, strung-out lo-fi renderings of the mainstream music of their youth or beyond (focusing on the ‘80s, as a rule).
If Animal Collective (Pink’s former label bosses at Paw Tracks) have taken at least part of that aesthetic towards the mainstream, it’s fitting that Pink himself should return to make the album which both epitomises the whole sound at the same time as upgrading it. “Before Today” is recorded with a great deal more fidelity and clarity than the likes of “The Doldrums” and “Worn Copy”, which tended to bury earworm pop music under vast amounts of distortion and FX, the cumulative effect of the albums being both exciting and a little nauseating.
By now, you may well have heard “Round And Round”, which we discussed at some length here a while back, a slick and anthemic song that becomes an even greater pleasure with every play, in spite of gradually accumulating more and more unappetising reference points (Deacon Blue’s “Fergus Sings The Blues”, Imagination’s “Just An Illusion”, Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is” being some we’ve mentioned in the office).
Offputting, perhaps, but “Round And Round” is compelling nevertheless because, well, it’s one of the most uncomplicatedly enjoyable pop songs I’ve heard this year, and also because it has a subtext of complication, too; a liminally eerie quality to the recording, a trippy filtering, which really comes into play when you hear it through headphones.
In the context of the varied pleasures of “Before Today”, too, “Round And Round” starts to sound just as odd as much of those early Ariel Pink albums. “Can’t Hear My Eyes” might have something of Christopher Cross to its yacht-rock vibes, plus an unfeasibly MOR saxophone solo. But it follows “Butt-House Blondies”, a magisterial psychedelic meander that’s intermittently punctuated by squalls of Sunset Strip metal guitars, and the fried acid power-pop of “Little Wig”, which really showcases the elaborate structuring and arrangements of Pink’s Haunted Graffiti bandmates.
And on the other side of “Can’t Hear My Eyes”, there’s a glorious underwater groove instrumental, “Reminiscences” (I’m reminded perhaps unaccountably of James Ferraro and The Skaters here); a plaintive and unnerving power ballad about gender confusion, “Menopause Man”; and, finally, “Revolution’s A Lie”, a zippy Cure homage that exposes, perhaps, at least some of Pink’s eccentricities as part of an enduring gothic sensibility.
It’s a very particular, sun-damaged LA gothic, a sort of phantasmagoric take on Californian culture that inspires a song title like “Beverly Kills”. Pink’s gift, though, is to warp his inspirations in a pretty original way: it’s hard to say what makes the cop show glossy soul of “Beverly Kills” quite so damaged-sounding – there’s more to it than the way Pink and his bandmates somehow summon up the strength for monkey noises and a Tarzan call near the death.
But, again, one of the things that make “Before Today” such a tremendous album is the way the weirdness can be focused on or zoned out. Track Three works neatly as a sweet synth and jangle reconfiguration of the Beach Boys, which its goth title – “L’Estat (Acc. To The Widow’s Maid)” – and mostly incomprehensible lyrics cannot entirely undermine. And “Bright Lit Blue Skies” is a gushing, confident and thoroughly lovely take on a garage song by The Rockin’ Ramrods that I must confess I’ve never come across before. Ancient prejudices be damned, or at least transcended: this is a great album all round.