Monday, November 15, 2010

Typically interesting piece by Nick Sylvester at Riff City about going back to a record he didn't like and gave a jaw-droppingly low (from my point of view) grade when he reviewed it for Pitchfork six years ago--Doldrums by Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti--and seeing what he makes of it now. The answer is "not much, still" but that's not the interesting bit, it's his theory that Ariel Pink's music can only be enjoyed through the mediation of a Theory.

It's interesting but I think Nick has got it arse about tit as we say in the United Kingdom. It's not that Ariel Pink supporters (and I remember there being a lot of them right off the bat, circa Doldrums and Worn Copy) didn't really care for the music that much and then came up with an elaborate rationalisation to convince themselves that it was good, important, etc. That would be perverse! No, it was much more about having an overwhelming aesthetic and emotional response and then trying to understand what was going on in the music that produced that affect. (My first proper attempt is in the profile of Ariel that is the second half of this Animal Collective/Paw Tracks piece. I also have a smaller go here). It's not a case of selling oneself on the idea of enjoying something, it's "why am I enjoying this, and enjoying it so much?".

Equally, as much as it would be flattering to think that the Theory then led to hypnagogic pop/chillwave, it seems vastly more the case that the music (Ariel's mainly, a few others) engendered the wave. If theory made any contribution it was only to the extent to which the ideas were already embodied in the music. A parallel here would be shoegaze, with Ariel Pink as My Bloody Valentine... a second wave of groups emerge that are largely inspired by the music but are also affected by the discourse that swirled around the group (and similar ones like A.R. Kane).

This is not to downplay the value of theorisation, just to put it into perspective--if a theory doesn't work as a description of the music, an eludication and heightening, it isn't going to have any purchase, power, point. So the music come first--and that has always been the case, actually, whether we're talking hauntology, post-rock, whatever. (Of course there's an argument that once a theory has been cobbled together there is an inevitable tendency to look for more evidence to bolster and perpetuate it, resulting in the conceptual-intellectual equivalent to city-scene boosterism--e.g.The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays drew attention to Manchester, resulting in unwarranted attention and exposure for Northside, Paris Angels, The High, etc).

The most thought-provoking bit in Nick's piece is where he asks what the difference really is between "nostalgic" and "derivative". Several months ago I had a sticky moment where it suddenly struck me that the arguments I might make in favour of Ariel Pink might equally be made in favour of Guided By Voices, a band I detested, philosophically as much as musically, in the mid-90s (they seemed to me to be like a one-band American Britpop). It almost made me go back and listen to GbV's records a la Nick returning to Doldrums (somehow I never quite got around to that). Ariel Pink's music does fairly often border on pastiche. What I think makes it different in the end comes down to personality. True pasticheurs erase themselves completely in pursuit of formalist perfection; if personality comes through at all it is likely to be personable, pleasant, well-adjusted (e.g. Matthew Sweet); pasticheurs and classicists tend to be fan-boys, they lack the narcissism (a/k/a emptiness inside) necessary to be stars (if stardom was their motivation they'd be more likely to be doing something contemporary-sounding rather than retro-niche, probably). As much as Pink might be reaching for the purity of these bygone radio-rock and MTV-pop forms, it is all filtered through the prism of his character and his life experience. That prism is murky (something I tried to get at in this year's profile). The fragmentary, marred, maculate sound of the earlier recordings could perhaps be seen not just as an aesthetic choice (radio out of tune, mottled decaying memories etc) but also as a kind of acting out, like a razor slashing through a canvas.... or a deliberate falling short of perfection-as-lie. Before Today is cleaned up and orderly by comparison with Doldrums and Worn Copy, but in the best songs you can still hear "negative drive" (to use Devoto's term), in the vocals and the lyrics, which are mostly forlorn, bleak, cynical, nihilistic, lost, confused etc. The driven-ness and anguish is what gives Ariel his edge over most of the wistful, washed-out (if likeable) music made in his wake. It is also why his records were worth building a theory around.