“It’s such a fine line between stupid, and clever.”
The immortal line from This is Spinal Tap perfectly sums up Ariel Pink. His albums all sound the same: some strange and poorly-produced track using dated instruments fades into another style that’s completely different, all while sounding like a third-generation copy of an audio cassette that some kid held up to the TV while crappy ’80s music videos were playing. Sound absolutely terrible? Good — because this is one of the best albums you’ll hear all year.
The ears of lo-fi loving Guided by Voices followers will need no adjustment upon hearing Lover Boy, an early collection of songs re-released on his first label (Ballbearings Pinatas). The indie scene took notice when professional (and highly acclaimed) folk weirdoes Animal Collective signed Pink to their Paw Tracks imprint, releasing three albums of musical tape-hiss glory. His star is slowly rising, and if you’re lucky enough to get caught into Ariel’s own self-defined universe of nostalgia and wit, consider yourself lucky: he takes you to unexpected heights.
Here, re-released with six mostly worthwhile bonus tracks, Lover Boy pays a strong homage to his heroes of every decade, sometimes even sounding like the real thing (the brilliant ’60s garage-rock inspired “Want Me” genuinely sounds like it could appear on Nuggets). His voice is far from perfect, which is half the fun. It’s almost as if, missing out on his favorite decades of music, he decides to re-insert himself into them. Sometimes this creates tracks that, though not as interesting, aren’t exactly failures (“Phoebus Palast” is the score to a really crappy ’80s horror flick), though some are (the pseudo-radio drama chaos of “Blue Straws”). “Angel (Live on KXLU)” is for anyone who wonders what New Order would sound like on a shoestring budget — one of many unnecessary questions that Pink answers for us, ourselves thanking him for the answers afterwards.
“This song’s for you, man”, he spouts on the ’80s karaoke-pop opener “Don’t Talk to Strangers”, and one of the major problems of Ariel Pink becomes immediately apparent: though he is genuinely lo-fi, some moments of studio-clarity could make a huge difference towards your own personal enjoyment of the album (though this is true with all of his albums). “Don’t Talk to Strangers” would have been a delicious ’80s homage in a pro studio, but it’s the amateurish vocals that ultimately keep it back from such a truly satisfying romp through leg warmers and bad TV graphics. “Didn’t It Click?” and “She’s My Girl” are other songs that suffer from this exact same problem. Though to some this comes across as splitting hairs, it’s still viable. While going hi-fi would force some of the charm off of Pink, the results could be nothing short of overwhelming (though, to the contrary, Guided by Voices’s turn towards commercial stardom was nothing short of absolutely miserable).
Pink’s musical brilliance is only occasionally matched by his genuinely child-like wit, as on the title track he croons “Lover girl / I love you like an animal / I love you like a dog or a snake or a buzzard bird” with genuine sincerity. You might laugh, you might view it as the ultimate satire on pop radio, but either way you’ll still enjoy it. In a sense, Lover Boy is just another good ol’ Haunted Graffiti album: it’s not perfect, but it’s fun, funny, and endlessly fascinating. It’s fun to take a trip down a nostalgic path that never existed in the first place.