Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti values style over substance, but that isn’t a bad thing. The band’s new project, Mature Themes, contains many of elements found on its successful 2010 release Before Today—creative collages of 1970’s pop themes suffused with vocal and keyboard-driven atmosphere.
With more time to work on the new release, the band built a studio and wrote songs while recording. As a result Mature Themes—the title track and a subtle comment on the band’s musical growth—is more elaborate than its predecessor. Songs take twists and turns before reaching their ultimate destinations, creating a variety of moods. Pink has surrendered the lo-fi atmosphere of his solo projects for sonic clarity with APHG. Listeners benefit from being able to hear the intricacies of each track.
The band’s approach proves the well-known Marshall McLuhan adage that the medium, in this case the style, is more important than the message (did 70’s pop really have a message?). APHG accentuates the idea by choosing the most superficial and familiar aspects of these styles and playfully combining them. The effect is more startling than nostalgic.
APHG’s music has been accurately compared to 70’s artists David Bowie and 10cc, artists who skillfully manipulated pop clichés. An even truer comparison might be with cult icon, Todd Rundgren, and his 1973 album A Wizard, A True Star. Rundgren—having achieved commercial success with his previous album—sought greater freedom, built his own studio, and recorded an album of wildly divergent pop styles, from Philly soul to Broadway, mashing them all together. APHG, like Rundgren, treats older pop styles with respect, but uses them primarily as grist for creating new music.
The project opens with “Kinski Assassins” featuring imaginary spy movie references, a late Seventies Chic-like instrumental track, Farfisa-organ synth patch, and a heavily-effected vocal. The result is less movie soundtrack than a movie in itself. Sexual references occur throughout the project, balancing the band’s frequent flights of fancy, fun, and pop transcendence. “Is This the Best Spot?” includes a creature-feature synth line and the repeated lyric “step into my time warp,” a great way to sum up the effect of listening to APHG’s music. “Mature Themes” and “Only in My Dreams” are unabashed love songs. The lead vocals on both tracks are earnest and sung straight-on, minus any effects. “Driftwood” blends surf guitar and drum sounds with a carnival-like organ, set against a lyric that seems to predict ecological disaster … scary! “Schnitzel Boogie” is, as it sounds, just plain fun and a momentary return to Pink’s lo-fi roots. “Live it Up” is reminiscent of The Cars circa “Let the Good Times Roll.” “Nostradamus and Me” opens with a shimmering synth similar to the intro of 10cc’s “Somewhere in Hollywood” and continues on for more than seven minutes—at least three minutes too long. “Baby” is a sparsely arranged, straightforward soul number with a Tina Turner-like vocal and closes out the collection.
Much of the revolution in 70’s rock, from punk to glam, incorporated older forms of popular music, sometimes as fun-loving tributes—The Ramones’ version of The Rivieras’ “California Sun”—and sometimes via parody (I think)—Sid Vicious singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” Punk rejected glossy recording techniques and even instrumental proficiency. But artists like Rundgren, Bowie, 10cc, Roxy Music, and others preferred to manipulate pop styles, splicing and dicing them. With Mature Themes Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti carries on the tradition of 70’s pop innovators, strip-mining bits and pieces from older forms of popular music and fashioning them into something entirely new. It works.