House Arrest

I don’t blame anyone for disliking Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti on first listen. An ear weaned on popular music is bound to recoil from anything that sounds as poorly recorded and mixed as most of Pink’s oeuvre. But give it a second chance. Underneath the tinny guitar and keyboard sounds, the beat-boxing, and the double-tracked vocals lurks a pop genius.

The story behind Pink is this: L.A. native Ariel Rosenberg, a home-recording pop savant, is discovered by the Animal Collective, who offer to release his music on their Paw Tracks imprint. He agrees, despite the fact that he never intended any of his homemade music to be released. House Arrest is Pink’s third release on Paw Tracks, following 2003’s Doldrums and 2004’s Worn Copy, and is a collection of Pink’s early recordings from 2001 and 2002.

To describe Ariel Pink’s sound is a little difficult, but just imagine listening to a soft-rock AM radio station on the crappiest boombox you own, then add a bunch of cheesy keyboard effects and you have Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. And while that may sound like a tacky mess, Pink’s genius is that he sings like he really is a 70s soft-rock superstar, filling his arrangements with the kind of strangely beautiful guitar and keyboard parts that bands like Air Supply or REO Speedwagon usually hide deep down in the mix.

Pink’s music is for closet soft rock and 70s pop fans, and hipsters who love ELO, Steely Dan and ABBA but can’t stand how overproduced their songs sound. For millions of listeners weaned on 80s punk and lo-fi bands like Pavement and Sebadoh, the slick production sound favored by bands in 70s makes their songs sound phony and artificial. Pink remedies this by combining the lo-fi ethos with the bombastic production of 70s pop music.

But to be fair, a lot of artists have tried to make mini pop symphonies on their four- and eight-tracks; that’s where the Elephant 6 collective came from. But those bands not only studied the songcraft of their pop heroes, they also studied their production techniques.

Pink is too weird and too cocky to do that. He wants listeners to like his music on his terms.

Which is admirable in an age where the only “indie” bands that find success are the ones that sound like major label bands. Artists like the Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens make amazing music, but there’s something aloof and unapproachable about them and their hype. Ariel Pink sounds like the pop-loving freak who lives in the apartment next to you, the guy who loves pop songs so much he’s determined to make music despite bad equipment and no backing musicians. Pink’s an underdog, and underdogs are what indie rock is all about.