Ariel Pink Polarizes and Riles Up the ‘Sco

Nate Mendelsohn

Walking through the crowd at the ’Sco the night of Thursday, Sept. 20, one could hear a variety of opinions on the sound of Ariel Pink’s music: “’80s rock,” “Barry White,” “Zappa with less technical proficiency,” “The B-52s,” “a hip-hop version of The Little Mermaid.” The list goes on. Comments ranged from calling his music “silly” and “too based in nostalgia” to simply “great.” His harshest critics say he’s lazy, a retro-ripping fraud while his biggest fans say he’s our generation’s Bowie. By some measure, they’re all right.

Pink’s music is known for dividing opinions, and his show on Thursday with his band, Haunted Graffiti, split the crowd accordingly. The band played music that would have fit comfortably on the radio in the ’70s or 80s, filled with cheesy synths, pop drum grooves and impassioned, theatrical vocal belting. Pink’s songs can be sugary or they can be creepy, but they’re always dramatic — he is a performer through and through. Ariel Pink may make the weirdest pop music around, but there’s never any doubt that his music draws on a long tradition of pure entertainment.

Pink’s background is the stuff of indie-kid legend at this point. Early on he recorded prolifically in his room, creating masses of lo-fi recordings and self-releasing his music by burning his own CDs. Eight years ago, he got one of those bedroom albums, The Doldrums, into the hands of Animal Collective, which quickly made him the first artist other than the band itself on its label, Paw Tracks. Since then he’s made more than 10 albums, moved from bedroom to studio, from scrappy solo shows to a live band, and has found himself on one of the biggest labels in the indie world, 4AD.

Pink took the stage at the ’Sco with a fourth-grade girl’s haircut, a yellow rose on his arm and a silver collar that sparkled in the ’Sco’s overhead lights. The band’s set consisted mostly of songs from its newest album, Mature Themes, released on 4AD in August. The sing-songy “Only in My Dreams” came to life on stage, stomping with more energy than the album version, while the much stranger “Kinski Assassin” employed a deadpan David Byrne-ish delivery. A couple of tracks from the band’s 2010 album Before Today rounded out the show — the uptempo guitar rock of “Bright Lit Blue Skies” was a highlight, with its ecstatic vocal harmonies and driving drums. Mature Themes’ searching stoner jam “Nostradamus & Me” was a strange choice for a closing a number, but Pink clearly doesn’t shy away from strange choices; it worked fine.

Pink’s music may be divisive, but the quality of his live show should be of no debate. Haunted Graffiti played wildly but with clarity; it was tight yet anything but stiff. The sound was fantastic, as balanced and clear as any band has sounded at the ’Sco. The fans danced, there were a couple of big sing-alongs and Pink even leaped into the crowd for an exciting, if mostly stationary, surf. Pink’s very physical performance that night seemed to be leading up to such a move, and the moment generated palpable energy. In short, the band played to the fullest, leaving the audience members without any question as to whether the band can deliver in a live setting, Whether they like Pink’s music in the first place, however, was another question.

That question of course raises questions of authenticity, sincerity and nostalgia. Many criticize Pink for simply playing the past back to hip young audiences who wouldn’t like his AM pop if Animal Collective and Pitchfork didn’t give him the indie-cred stamp of approval (after all, how many of those hip young things actually listen to the B-52s?). Others see him as a genius songwriter and a stylistic visionary, updating past bubblegum into modern art that can still be danced to. Some question whether Pink is for real, or if he is at least partly delivering his blasts from the past with his tongue in his glittery cheek.

In the end though, it simply comes down to a matter of personal taste. Setting aside the mystique of his past and concerns about his legitimacy, Thursday night was a great time for anyone who likes Haunted Graffiti’s style of theatrical pop punch. If you thought it was an amazing show, you’re right. And if you thought it was unoriginal, you’re right too.