A Frightful Night With Reverend Ariel Pink

    “How many of y’all been going through some shit today-ay?” comes a soulful exaltation from the stage. It’s a short, slightly disheveled black guy who plays instrumental Stevie-era soul revival and calls himself Dâm-Funk. Tonight, he’s the opening act. Without skipping a beat, he rides the subsequent lukewarm applause into an incredibly enthusiastic rendition of his single “Hood Pass Intact.” On his gargantuan double album “Toeachizown”, the track is more of Dâm-Funk’s heavy moog-and-drum-machine ‘80s nostalgia. But here, backed by a live band, he plays funky and freewheeling extended cuts of these songs, shooting flirtatious smiles at disinterested females and ad-libbing inspirational lyrics about the importance of family and the city he’s currently in. He does this every night.

    I had known that the venue had been converted from an old church, but I’m still surprised at just how church-like the Irenic still is. Stained-glass windows line the walls and a giant blue circular centerpiece bathes the giant crucifix mounted to the ceiling in a menacing submarine glow. Yet it all feels totally appropriate, seeing that I’ve surrendered to full groupie-dom and bought tickets to two separate shows on the same tour to see as much as I possibly can of one of America’s last cult rockers.

    Ariel Pink started out making songs in his bedroom, which is a bit of over-touted biography rendered practically meaningless in an age of tech-savvy laptop beatmakers and lucrative synth-pop duos. But the key distinction with Pink is that when the Flying Lotuses and Beach Houses of today were fine-tuning their sleek and fashionable production aesthetics, Ariel Pink was writing songs. When Radiohead was thinking about the future, Ariel Pink was writing songs. Pink wrote over 500 songs before the release of his first semi-wide release — which may never have happened if Animal Collective hadn’t discovered Pink and vowed to land him on their then-newfangled Paw Tracks label.

    Yet despite his biopic-worthy underdog genesis, Pink’s music never fails to leave passerby listeners scratching their heads or scoffing in immediate dismissal. Trend-wary purists of contemporary music reserve a certain amount of skepticism for people like Pink. And if gimmicks are your concern, Pink’s catalogue is full of red flags.

    First of all, he’s a showman — though not exactly in the way that people say “Arcade Fire are such great performers.” On the second night, at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood, Pink struts downstage in a black jumpsuit as his band Haunted Graffiti dives into his triumphant “Symphony of the Nymph.” He tosses his shoulder-length dyed-pink hair to and fro, turns his back to the audience for minutes at a time, makes truly frightening facial expressions as he delivers his lyrics and takes extreme, cartoonish liberties with his vocal delivery on nearly every song. Two years ago, at Coachella, Pink memorably suffered a “meltdown” on stage, refusing to sing a word of VHS-horror-movie theme song “Fright Night,” before taking cover under a keyboard stand for the rest of the set. Think Johnny Cash’s rock-bottom drug days set against Prince’s “Purple Rain” pageantry. Think neon lights and late-‘70s L.A. clubs where public confession, performance and drug use all orbit the sacred nucleus of the glittering rock star.

    And all of this would be terribly ostentatious if it weren’t for the music Ariel Pink makes. With big-studio production value, Pink’s 2010 release “Before Today” honed and polished the songwriter’s surreal and restless, ‘80s-referencing mode of avant-garde pop that may have been lost on listeners who sampled Pink’s earlier home-recorded work (much of which featured beatboxed drums and damaged-tape ducking). The album was a brilliant collection of structurally inventive, nighttime pop-rock epics doused in hazy synth textures, sound effects and an approach to the craft that fell somewhere between a prog Michael Jackson and a gothic Frank Zappa.

    But if “Before Today” was Pink’s shadowy, grooving “Dark Side of the Moon,” this year’s “Mature Themes” is his towering “Wall”:  loud, un-apologetic and triumphantly ambitious.  And, like “The Wall,” “Mature Themes” loosely operates as a concept album following the rise and fall of a rock star, as we sample what could be interpreted as the fictionalized artist’s hits (the lovelorn pleas of the title track, the ‘60s psych splendor of “Only in My Dreams”) coupled with his inner torment (the ominous, textured abyss of “Nostradamus & Me”).

    With Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar’s sleek, ultra-modern rap/R&B aesthetic shaping up to set the bar for this year’s album-of-the-year contenders, a challenging, at times ugly album like “Mature Themes” will easily be lost in the shuffle.  But though many of his sounds feel borrowed from some ill-defined American era captured on videotape, Pink’s thrilling inventiveness is timeless. To dismiss Pink’s art solely on the grounds that it is abrasive and unorthodox would be to overlook one of our preeminent and most rewarding songwriters. Submit to the gleeful self-myth of it all, and there’s nowhere you’d rather be but in the holy house of Pink.

    More to Discover
    Donate to The UCSD Guardian
    $200
    $500
    Contributed
    Our Goal

    Your donation will support the student journalists at University of California, San Diego. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment, keep printing our papers, and cover our annual website hosting costs.

    Donate to The UCSD Guardian
    $200
    $500
    Contributed
    Our Goal