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Ariel Pink Revisited

By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti

Today I begin a project I’ve been meaning to for a while: relistening to albums I reviewed years ago, and reevaluating my opinions. It’ll be an occasional thing, or a mini-series, I can’t decide. What pushed me off the diving board here was a screening of Jackass 3D this past Sunday. A good friend of mine had brought his friend, who is a Pitchfork videographer, to the theater, and after a handshake this was the first thing he said to me: Two years ago, Pitchfork.tv was in the middle of shooting a performance of L.A. lo-fi artist Ariel Pink, when Pink launched into a rant, roughly: “So who the fuck is Nick Sylvester? And why would you let him compare my debut album to ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic?” I had given the record, 2004′s The Doldrums LP, a 5.0; this is considered a low rating.

Pink has become more popular in the last six years, and his new album, Before Today, received a handsome 9.0 review courtesy Mark Richardson this past June. That Pink would have brought up my review of his debut years later implies, to me, that he thought I had somehow delayed his ascent. The nature of his music hasn’t changed much in six years, he might add, only crystallized. This coming Saturday, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti co-headlines Webster Hall.

So here I am. Reviewing the review, I see I couldn’t decide whether Pink was genius or if, by calling him genius, I was only saying that I was genius for establishing a framework to call him genius. Apparently I split the difference: 5.0 out of 10.0. The elements of Pink’s music — throwaway AM radio melodies; hissy, reverb-laden productions that simulated the decay of recorded artifacts; the recording as fragment, hinting at what it could be; a reappraisal of New Age — were far more enjoyable to mull over, I remember, than the album was to listen to. I thought these elements were born of poverty, or in service of persona, or both. Ariel Pink, as I thought, was a “crazy” guy, singing “normal” songs.

Not many people liked this record, I recall, but I would have been in good company — Simon Reynolds’, Mike Powell’s — were I to sign off. Pink’s record set off fantastic ideas about music and sound and how it is heard and composed. But the physical act of listening to Pink’s music left me nauseous. Looking at the original draft of the review I sent the site’s editor, on October 25, 2004 at 12:19 a.m., my last line had read like this: “I really don’t know if this is something I can slap a number on just yet.” The line was cut because, I was told, the site doesn’t like “fretting publically over the score stuff.” Sic.

I re-listened to Pink’s debut yesterday a few times. I hear decisions in a way I admit I didn’t at first, and I hear evidence of Pink asking himself the same question every recording artist asks himself in one way or another: How can I make the banal seem surprising again? There’s mouth percussion instead of drums. The bass is mushy and unarticulated, functioning more like a spread of sound than an instrument. Pink’s vocals are awash in all kinds of reverb, and his voice itself has a theatrical ‘sad’ crooner vibe to it, as if Pink is one of Nathanael West’s grotesques in The Day Of The Locust. There is strong hiss throughout the recording. It is dusty, mid-forward, woozy stuff, as if “rescued” from damaged cassette tapes. All these decisions work together to resituate Pink’s melodies, which are bright like commercial jingles that, in his songs, sound uneasy and melancholic. Therein lies the romantic quality of The Doldrums that, I think, excites Pink the most. These are complete songs for the most part, but fragment-like in the way he leaves his recordings unpolished, in the double distance he simulates between (a) the song and the disintegrated recording, then (b) the recording and the listener. The songs are echoes of grander times; these melodies, before they were put to work for some new kind of soap, were once beautiful and affecting. There was a time we didn’t just shake them off.

We have replaced the word “derivative,” which is negative, with “nostalgic,” which connotes nothing.

None of this means I enjoy listening to Pink’s music. The music still strikes me as cold and clinical and conceptual, indirect and dispassionate. There is an emotional distance in Pink’s music — even the more masterfully recorded, widely praised Before Today — that leaves me unsatisfied. His music communicates less as sound-music music (Sound Music), and more as set-of-ideas-about-music music (Idea Music). The balance might be 20% to 80%, let’s say, with the necessary wiggle room given the fact that this distinction is pretty arbitrary. Either way: Without a theory to go with it, I can’t hear Pink’s song.

And again, I don’t remember many other people hearing Pink’s song either. But in the last six years, since Pink came on the radar courtesy Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label, a Theory has been developed. Building off ideas that Simon Reynolds threw out there originally, Britain’s The Wire called this kind of lo-fi music Hypnagogic Pop. The paragraph before the last one I submit as evidence of the vocabulary and ‘hip’ Theory that critics are using to make sense of a lot of popular lo-fi recording outfits. Both The Wire and Pitchfork credit Pink as the Velvet Underground influence for this movement of young artists who make music “refracted through the memory of a memory,” that “draws its powers from 1980s pop culture,” but is at heart ahistorical stuff because it is so self-absorbed: the way I remember it, or my memory of the Ducktales theme song, which is just as good as your memory of how the theme song went, and so on. And since most people I imagine are encountering Hypnagogic Pop songs via blogs and other recommendation sites on the internet, download links alongside Variations Of The Theory and sometimes Video Interpretations Of The Theory…

Well now! I will resist the temptation to ask, if only rhetorically, how much music has been created since then as performance of The Theory, now that it’s become The Way We Talk About This Kind Of Music. Especially because “half-remembered memory” is such a personal, inalienable right the hypnagogic pop artist exercises, there is technically no wrong way to make h-pop. You cannot fail. The signifier of memory, in this music, is its imperfection, the relative haziness and lack of directness in the music. As long as the h-pop or chillwave critic can discern elements of “memory” or “nostalgia” or “hazy, reverb-laden vibe” or “half-sung melodies refracted through the quarter-remembered chopper blades of the opening sequence of Airwolf as I fell asleep in my basement,” no worries, we’ll take it from here. We have replaced the word “derivative,” which is negative, with “nostalgic,” which connotes nothing.

Unless you’re Pink, if you are knowingly making anything that resembles hypnagogic pop, in 2010, aren’t you kinda getting played?

So instead I will ask whether hypnagogic pop is a rare triumph of music critics over musicians, meaning this: Is it even possible to make hypnagogic pop that is more interesting than (or as groundbreaking as) The Theory about hypnagogic pop? Will half-remembered Airwolf music ever be as good as the phrase “half-remembered Airwolf music”? How long till The Wire cuts a Theory for Mountain Dew Green Label?

When I first encountered Pink — or really any ‘difficult’ Mostly Idea Music type artist — I admit there is pleasure in figuring out what a song or an artist is “about.” What the artist wants to get across, etc. It can feel like an alley-oop, the way the Artist throws up the Idea Music ball and I, the Critic, slam it into the…hoop? (I don’t watch basketball; this is my hypnagogic take on the sport.) It is possible that other people — not critics — have similarly positive and completely satisfying experiences in sublimating music they don’t like via frameworks that allow them to understand how they could like it, until they have, in fact, “solved” said record like a math problem. I also think it’s possible that some people just like Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and his disciples on simple “like the way this sounds” levels, without even entertaining the Idea Music side. So maybe the best question is: Unless you’re Pink, if you are knowingly making anything that resembles hypnagogic pop, in 2010, aren’t you kinda getting played?

There is a song on Pink’s new record called “Round And Round.” It is considered his best song maybe because it’s his most direct; the sound-music element of “Round and Round” has higher footing with the set-of-ideas-about-music element, yet everything anyone has ever written about Pink still applies. He’s at his best — and I said the same thing about Animal Collective years ago — when he takes his ideas about music for granted and just writes Ariel Pink songs. There is nothing that “Round And Round” is “about,” so much as it is “about” “Round And Round.” Nothing but net. He doesn’t need the hoopla.

The death of hypnagogic pop music, chill wave, fork gaze, whatever we’re calling it, is suddenly easy to fathom. Ariel Pink’s Before Today is maybe the most realized manifestation of all things h-pop. With “Round And Round,” the music has come close to realizing The H-Pop Theory, sans the H-Pop Theorists, which makes the ongoing promotion of it seem somewhat…unsatisfying. What are all these kids doing? Oh, the whole nostalgic-memory-half-remembered-throwaway pop thing? Been there! Derivative of being nostalgic! Whatever!

(Let’s quickly pass over the fact that the signifiers of hypnagogic pop are elements in thousands of great songs that preceded the term — songs that didn’t need the Theory in order for you to understand them. You’re encouraged to check out these two compilations. You’re also encouraged to listen to Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest.)

Brian Eno. Last week, Warp Records released Eno’s Small Craft On A Milk Sea. There exists a short promotional video in which Eno is interviewed by Dick Flash of Pork Magazine, a fictional music critic from the UK. In attempting to ask Eno about his process, Flash ends up talking more about Eno’s music than Eno himself ever gets a chance to. His ambient works, Flash tells Eno, are a “notional micro-climate, a place more than an event.” The critic figured out Eno a long time ago, in other words. We know what Eno is about. Does this makes Eno’s new album less pleasurable to listen to?

Small Craft on a Milk Sea sits surprisingly comfortably alongside the records from Eno’s ambient and experimental golden era,” Pitchfork’s Mark Pytlik wrote last week. “Others might argue that fit is a little too comfortable.” Eno you old coot! The nerve of this guy, giving us no “new music as set-of-ideas music,” just plain old boring “music as ambient-and-experimental-golden-era music.” I mean what am I supposed to do with this shit — just enjoy it?! 7.4!

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Dipset’s Return and the Tyranny of Promise

By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

This past Friday the Diplomats, a group of Harlem-from rappers who had their heyday in the mid-00s before submitting to a kind of quiet entropy, announced their plans for a reunion concert. Cam’Ron, Jim Jones, Juelz Santana, and Freekey-Zekey appeared together on Hot 97′s Angie Martinez Show, and explained their return with classic Dipset tautologic. “Just for you to see us here together, obviously it was nothing that we couldn’t all put to the side and get over, cause if not, we wouldn’t be here today,” Juelz said. Money, they insist, is not the reason they’re back. Cam and Jones’ “Toast,” which disses Kanye West over his own “Runaway” beat, got its fair share of radio play this past weekend; I may or may not have just watched the “We Fly High” video on Youtube. The concert happens November 26, the day after Thanksgiving. Will you be there?

I moved to New York in 2004, right around when Cam’Ron’s Purple Haze came out. You either thought this album was a joke or a game-changer, and for better or worse, my first friends in the city were people who thought the latter. An entire social life was built out of visiting downtown “mix huts,” collecting Diplomat mixtapes like they were Pokemon, hoping for a new Cam couplet as you fought your way through eighty minutes of poorly mixed audio, radio interview snippets, and the hack emcees Cam kept in the wings: J.R. Writer, Hell Rell, Juelz Santana, Max B, 40 Cal, Un Kasa, et al. (Patience like this reached its zenith as we all sat through the “movie” Killa Season in its entirety.)

There was something fun — that’s really it, just fun — about rooting for the little guys. We charted the progress of J.R. Writer, found that one good Hell Rell song. 40 Cal got his due. I was editing the tracks section of Pitchfork.com, a music recommendation Web site, and this was where we shared our findings in meticulously unkempt, highly allusive, usually bad prose. Over time I admit my ears became attuned to the quality of “promise” more than they should have — not listening to the song itself but dreaming of the new, improved next song the rapper would put together afterward.

Not that I am apologizing for my clique, or for *my* clique, for our enthusiasm. We covered a lot of different kinds of music in the section; I know we missed a lot too. People — listeners, musicians, critics — complained about the crack-rap myopia. But it was what it was. Since then Pitchfork Tracks has transformed into Forkcast, though instead of mostly bad young mixtape rappers, the section celebrates limp lo-fi rock and a mostly bad young synthesizer music known as chillwave. Altered Zones, Pitchfork’s new sister site, is a playground for exactly the kind of “fun” in listening to eager musicians slowly figure out what they’re about. The writing, if we’re being generous, is a performance of the sound. Five years ago, under similar fire, I’m sure I used that same exact sentence as my defense. Fun stuff but not for everybody.

We hear a lot about listeners wanting new blood, young blood, etc., but I suspect (and just know in certain cases) that new musicians have started to play into that idea too: putting half-baked, half-finished tracks into inboxes, trying out every which fictitious sounding micro-genre, hoping something falls “in the zone,” so to speak.

All’s to say, I wonder what hand I had in Dipset’s first death. Surely not much of one, but overexposure was part of the problem, “crown their cradle” as a Spin editor once put it, right into my review of the Arctic Monkeys’ debut. Maybe if he had more time to themselves, away from the microscope, Hell Rell could have delivered on the promise of “Hell Is Home (Rukmix).” In retrospect, probably not, but I do think our ridiculously high expectations for Dipset — and subsequent impatience with Dipset for not meeting those expectations in a timely manner — had something to do with something. J.R. Writer was a tough sell for anyone whose mouth wasn’t already up to the Dipset fire hydrant.

But this isn’t about “my hand in Dipset’s death,” or even really “Dipset’s death,” so much as it is about whether delight in “watching young musicians figure out what they’re about” has eroded rock critics’ ability to assess the overall goodness of new music qua music. Riff City favorite Wavves are a solid recent example: an act celebrated mostly for being slightly less shitty than when they first started.

We hear a lot about listeners wanting new blood, young blood, etc., but I suspect (and just know in certain cases) that new musicians have started to play into that idea too: putting half-baked, half-finished tracks into inboxes, trying out every which fictitious sounding micro-genre, hoping something falls “in the zone,” so to speak. If it works, they get some time to figure out what they’re actually doing, a sense of critical investment (“Seaashellzz’s new track makes good on the promise of…”), at the very least an opening slot at Death By Audio. They make music the internet critics recommend, precisely because it’s the kind of music the internet critics recommend. And you were angry at us for what again?

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On Pitchfork’s Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s

So these are the best tracks of the 90s. Something's missing.
By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Pavement, champions

All last week, the music recommendation website Pitchfork.com rolled out their “Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s” feature. My guess is things haven’t changed much since I last contributed to one of their lists, which means there were a series of rounds in which reviewers suggested possible tracks, then the top editors whittled down the list to about 1000 or so nominees, and those were the ones the reviewers voted on in the end. The list cuts across genres and has a definitive feel, but by the very non-definitive nature of lists, it functions mostly as a conversation-starter, traffic generator, that kind of thing. The top ten, of course, would be more or less predictable, as it always is: “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, “Are You Gonna Go My Way” by Lenny Kravitz, and so on. But I spent Monday through Thursday clicking through the list, looking for songs I hadn’t heard before or simply had forgotten.

But then I must have hit refresh on my browser hundreds of times Friday morning, waiting for the site to correct one blatant error: no Kravitz in the Top Ten? I could name at least 200 songs that “Are You Gonna Go My Way” was better than; somehow all 200 of those songs were on this list though. To be honest, when I clicked “Next” to go from the Top 20-11 to the Top 10 that morning, I half-expected Pitchfork to have made room for various live cuts of the song too, to say nothing of the original demo, which has more of a lo-fi/”indie” feel to it. Instead “Are You Gonna Go My Way” appeared in no form whatsoever on this list.

It has been a confusing few days. Over the weekend I spent a lot of time thinking about the matter, discussing it with friends in the music recommendation industry, trying to understand how this might have happened. Was “Are You Gonna Go My Way” just too obvious? I can see reviewers on the staff board saying something to that extent. Everyone already knows how “Are You Gonna Go My Way” is the best song/”track” of the 90s. Why put out another boring old list with Lenny Kravitz at the top of the list like he always is? (He’s not always or really ever on the top of any list, but my sense is that most “Best X of the 90s” type situations deliberately leave off Kravitz for this reason. It’s simply unfair for the other artists to be compared to a stone-cold classic.)

Another hypothesis is this: Maybe people don’t know that “Are You Gonna Go My Way” came out in 1993. I imagine this is a problem with most timeless rock and roll masterpieces. What year did it come out? It’s always very unclear, what with the track being timeless. So it seems entirely plausible that it didn’t even occur to the editors and contributors that this song was even eligible.

I admit I didn’t like “AYGGMW” the first time I heard it. Electric guitars, awesome singing, epic solos–same old, same old. This is just what we’ve come to expect from Lenny. But then I saw the music video. Lenny Kravitz is wearing platform shoes and something like a hybrid jumpsuit/expensive woman’s dress. He is in an enormous circular room filled with people, and refuses to play his guitar until the producers lower down a flashing ring-shaped chandelier that he probably picked out on his own. The chick from the Lenny Kravitz video is playing drums. Near the end of the video someone jumps from the second-floor balcony and lands on the ground at the exact moment it’s time for the guitars to come back in. And turn this planet back to one! Now the song was making a lot more sense to me. That said, I can see how Pitchfork might have been worried about giving it top honors. You’ll notice that not a single artist on the list wore platform shoes in his music video. It might have reflected poorly on the site.

What would my list look like? Probably a lot like yours. Here are the top five tracks of the 1990s:

5. Lenny Kravitz – Are You Gonna Go My Way (Live On Top Of The Pops)

[youtube id="W883fqNrw9c"]

4. Robbie Williams and Tom Jones – Are You Gonna Go My Way (Lenny Kravitz cover)

[youtube id="qOg2nXmJyY0"]

3. Lenny Kravitz – Are You Gonna Go My Way? (Live at the MTV Awards 1993, featuring John Paul Jones)

[youtube id="3xW84u4DOzE"]

2. Lenny Kravitz – Are You Gonna Go My Way (Studio Version)

tied with:

2. Lenny Kravitz – Are You Gonna Go My Way? (Live On TV 3Sat)

[youtube id="2mheQ24Xjow"]

(Note: This is more of a bluesy take. The slower tempo lets Lenny sell that chorus: “Are you gonna go my way?!” It seems like he really doesn’t know whether or not you will this time, whereas in the original cut the chorus feel is more “You’re probably gonna go my way.”)

1. Jamiroquai – Virtual Insanity

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