Better Than: Bumping “Blurred Lines” but just as morally suspect
Ariel Pink is a controversial figure these days, and he absolutely knows it. While he used to catch flak for his crude recording techniques, inane lyrics, lackluster live appearances, and overtly nostalgic approach to assembling his brand of bizarre pop, all that changed with the release of 2010’s Before Today. Discovered by Animal Collective years before, the influential indie act released his decidedly odd records on their Paw Tracks label to many a critical sneer, but Before Today and its lead single, “Round and Round,” afforded Pink the first slivers of legitimacy that had long eluded him. Two years later, Mature Themes saw him double back on some of his quirkier vibes, but the record was met with mostly positive reception; it seemed like he was finally growing up.
That’s when Pink started putting his foot in his mouth during interviews, espousing the kind of mentalities that plague Men’s Rights message boards, and generally coming off as a clueless, insensitive idiot at best and a hateful, entitled turd at worst. Feeling persecuted by fame, coming a bit unhinged when his long-term relationship with like-minded weirdo Geneva Jacuzzi ended; these things no doubt triggered the onslaught of contentious commentary, but they hardly justify it, and his attitudes have been known to rub many the wrong way (including the woman who allegedly maced him during a date gone horribly awry).
Though he paints himself as some kind of beta male martyr, none of this has affected Pink’s ambitious output. On November 18th, he’ll release pom pom, a 17-track double LP with all the outlandish, uncomfortable motifs he’s come under fire for, but plenty of gems to help wash away any bitter taste – if anyone’s still willing to swallow. Last night, he made a special appearance at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn, a venue a fraction of the size he normally plays. It was one of only three planned stops (the others are in L.A. and London), and tickets sold out in minutes.
Starting well after midnight, Pink was dressed like Blanket-era Michael Jackson in mirrored shades, floppy black hat, and a skin-tight red lamé Henley, his bleached hair loosely tied back and disheveled. The allusions to the much-persecuted King of Pop were so strong it hardly felt coincidental, especially since he’s often cited Jackson as a heavy influence. Backed by a seven-piece band that included longtime player Tim Koh and a host of new faces, Pink launched into his set with Dovers cover “She’s Gone.” From there, it was all pom pom cheerleading, and performance-wise, Pink was on point.
Circus music-inflected tracks like “Plastic Raincoats in the Pig Parade” and the slightly more demented “Dinosaur Carebears” put the evening squarely in the realm of travelling side-show, but just as the sounds on pom pom are wildly varied, so was the set — the bewildering “Four Shadows,” for instance, translated as Ariel Pink’s version of doom metal. His rapid-fire approach meant that crowd energy stayed high, and if some of the change-ups felt sloppy or rushed it was a small sacrifice to the Saturnalian feel of the show.
Pink was a willing ringmaster, encouraging some blue-painted patrons to stage dive before proceeding with “Put Your Number in My Phone,” pom pom‘s characteristically awkward first single. He followed that with “One Summer Night,” murmuring, “Fuck it, this is all new album shit,” into the mic, his flippancy belying his clear pride in the material. “Lipstick” provided some much-needed sonic familiarity, its chilly synths and airy beats quintessential Ariel Pink earmarks. The uneasy lyrical narrative is Pink’s version of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” and as if singing about murdering prostitutes in first person wasn’t enough to raise eyebrows, Pink moved straight into “Black Ballerina,” his rather racist ode to strippers. Welcoming a (white) female back-up vocalist to the stage, he intoned, “I like your areolas.” He says the same phrase in a mid-track skit on the album version, but her rehearsed response clearly called out his recent detractors. “You’re misogynistic, Ariel” she said. “I don’t know what that means,” he countered. She insisted, “You invented it,” the irony of the statement meant as a jab to those up in arms over his recent faux pas. But Pink’s missing the point; attitudes like his are nothing new, no matter how they’re joked about.
Ariel Pink couldn’t play the scapegoat without being acutely aware of public opinion regarding his attitude, and he plays to it fervently, acknowledging his troll-ish nature. He’s always been the provocateur, and often, that’s what gives his music its salt. Whether that manifests as the tie-dyed psych tinges of album standout “Dayzed Inn Daydreams” or eccentric sound effects in the ribbiting “Exile on Frog Street,” it’s part of Pink’s undeniable appeal; he’s a fascinating, wholly inscrutable character. His last song of the night, “Sexual Athletics” ends with the sing-songy line “All I ever wanted was a girlfriend all my life;” it might come off as entitled to some, or vulnerable to others. Either way, the crowd accepted him as he dove from the stage and onto their outstretched arms, that human contact and adulation a strange consolation for an even stranger guy. And no matter which version of Ariel Pink fans or foes choose to take at face value – the misunderstood genius, the immature creep, the beta male misogynist, or something else altogether – pom pom acts as both mea culpa and cocky “Who, me?”
Overheard: “Nice shirt, Ariel.” – one of Pink’s bandmates addressing the real elephant in the room
Random Notebook Dump: Wondered if Ariel Pink was drinking Pink Babies, the frozen vodka-grapefruit-mate concoction Baby’s All Right serves for $2 during happy hour.
Plastic Raincoats in the Pig Parade
Nude Beach A Go-Go
Picture Me Gone
Put Your Number In My Phone
One Summer Night
Not Enough Violence
Dayzed Inn Daydreams
Exile on Frog Street