Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti

The Doldrums

(Paw Tracks; 2004)

By Aaron Newell | 18 October 2007

The Law has this principle called “waste of resources” which is generally applied to property claims. If a hunk of land is owned by someone who isn’t using it or who might have died/gone to jail/otherwise can’t be found, the Court can, after reasonably seeking the absentee out, grant the land to another person whom the Court deems will put the land to good use. This is done under the assumption that the community benefits from the effective use of the land and that it’s against public policy to let a resource go to waste. The principle dates back to the rustic days when all members of a given community had farms, and if everyone in town wasn’t cranking out goat-loads of lentils, babies starved and/or virgins were sacrificed. It’s basically a legal relic, but there is some wisdom buried therein.

We now live in times where virgins are extinct, and the baby trend is winding-down in favour of longer vacations and larger DVD collections. “Waste of Resources” application is also, obviously, on the decline; just look at the racks at your local HMV. When all it takes to make a cute pop-hero is two attractive inbreeding Californians, a lifetime gym membership for their offspring, a Mickey Mouse Club scholarship, and an eventual million-dollar marketing budget, you have to think that maybe, just maybe, you could buy 50,000 talented singer-songwriters a digi-8-track or Pro-Tools, a Mac, and a used guitar for the same amount. You’d also end up sparing the pretty inbred the eventual coke rehab. That would be, in my estimation, an all-around effective allotment of the same resources.

The coin does have its flipside, though. What if these resources aren’t promotional moneys but a more-or-less strong catalogue of songs? What if these songs were, at their best, quirky, strange, alluring, uplifting, addictive, and inventive---but almost altogether wasted by, say, an AM radio sound so paper-thin that they crumple, fold, and disintegrate the moment they hit the air? Welcome to Doldrums, a record comprised of horrible-sounding gems by a very skilled, talented, and interesting artist. And you thought Britney and Justin had a love/hate relationship.

Now don’t get me wrong, I can relate to this kind of music. My first copy of Buck 65’s Vertex was on a 6th generation dub from a wonky tape deck, and I still played the hell out of it because its lo-fi-ness was a necessary evil. In the first place, that record was committed to tape during a 48-hour writing/recording spree when Buck’s income came from slinging magazines and newspapers from an on-street stall in Halifax. But that was over six years ago.

I’ve got less compassion for Ariel Pink. Today, no one has an excuse for making shit-sounding albums. What can’t be immediately recorded well can be touched-up on your record-label-owning friend’s laptop. And with or without the Mac, what gets reeled on cassette in Sam Beam’s bedroom can easily morph into one of the best albums of the first-half of this decade, no worries, as long as the songwriting and delivery accord with the whisper-in-your-ear quality of the recording. So what’s the deal, Pink? I knew from track one you had something to say (“…good kids make bad grown ups”). I must be missing something here.

Doldrums goes from '80s electro pop-psych (the spectacular “Strange Fires”) to wanna-Bee Gees (the painful “Among Dreams”) to the ghost of smothered Supertramp (the schizo “Haunted Graffiti” which, in all fairness, slowly evolves into something quite spectacular over its four movements). But with Ariel’s shrill falsettos and dirty-old-Brit baritones, the inevitable conclusion is you don’t want any of these songs whispered in your ear. Due to the shirtless, pasty, graveyard-loitering Pink Flamingos extra on the cover, the very thought is somewhat repulsive.

So would these songs have benefited from some Pro-Tools or Avey Tarring? The sad detachment of the title track fits the fuzz, as does its creepy-crooned hook: “I’m just a killer / Can’t kill anything.” It therefore seems that---judging from “Strange Fires” and “The Doldrums”---either spaced psych or jilted Charles Manson would be the ethic matching the vacuous non-production technique of Doldrums. “For Kate I Wait” also makes a case for the no-fi with its plodding gum-percussion (Pink deceptively---except for the “psshht!” cymbal crashes---beatboxed the entire album), cascading synths, and pathetic lonely purgatory dejection, as if Pink would be singing this from behind the hot water boiler in his basement with the lights out anyway. There are also moments where it seems the 8-track is actually helping him out by upping the novelty quotient, thereby mitigating the elevator cheese factor that would be present if one heard “Gray Sunset” in all its glory. The answer to that question is a resounding “I dunno,” largely because the work is scattered enough that the 8-track is the most consistent thing about it.

Whether it was intentional or by necessity, Doldrums is its own worst enemy: it gives us a handful of fantastic songs and takes away their enjoyment with an unnecessary, now-novel no-fi approach to presentation. Dreamy? Mostly. Intriguing? Like a car wreck. Listenable? Kind of. Frustrating? To no end. Satisfying? The opposite. Arty?

Um, maybe. I’ll say yes, if just to cover my ass, because I just don’t get it.