When Ariel Pink last visited Brighton around the release of his first record for 4AD, Before Today, it was a very strange time for him. As an artist he had been sold as a musical maverick, but perhaps because he had been stung by criticism of his early, ramshackle, live outings he put himself under pressure to present a highly professional show. It led to a sanitised, lifeless and confused performance with only the occasional high.
It took him some time to adapt to his new label. 2010’s Before Today and its follow up Mature Themes were well received critically and broke the singer to a new audience, but they left a feeling of stagnation when compared to his pre 4AD offerings. Last year’s, Pom Pom was the album long term fans had been wanting him to make for over half a decade, combining as it did the zany eclecticism and no boundaries song writing of his noughties material with the increased production values that being on a big label offered. Not only that, it was brilliant, grew with repeat listens and was definitely one of the best records of 2014.
If the 2010 version seemed like a rock band playing Ariel Pink covers, the 2015 live outfit felt like it was close to the sounds the madcap genius is hearing himself. Just seeing the nontraditional line-up of his backing sextet, drums with double kick, 12-string guitar, bass and three synths along with six microphones was reassuring; it signalled that Pink was going to try and recreate the myriad moods and styles of Pom Pom as authentically as possible.
Not that you would have known it from the opening duo of songs. ‘Kinski Assasin’, the comparatively linear and forgettable opener to 2012’s Mature Themes, seems designed not to use the possibilities of the new set up, while Pom Pom entrée ‘Plastic Raincoats In The Pig Parade’ – an enjoyable but slightly cliched psych-pop outing – sees the multipart harmonies only feeling their way into the gig.
The hour or so of music that follows the slow start is only intermittently of the highest quality. The pop-noir of ‘Not Enough Violence’ was the first track to stand out, benefiting from a volume level higher than all that had come before it. It started in synth-led goth rock territory, complete with anthemic chorus, Ariel helping out with some dual drums half way through the track before it flowered into a space synth boogie outro. ‘Goth Bomb’ was a glorious, overblown mess; every instrument vying for attention in a three-minute romp that veers toward classic rock territory. ‘Dinosaur Carebears’ is a title and song that not many could get away with, it started like a Far Eastern tinged new romantic track, going into a mid-song interlude that is part toytown, part Cossack dance and finished via an audacious time change into Stock Aiken and Waterman do dub. It was performed flawlessly and somehow it worked. Yet in between these numbers the gig never truly took off.
The show closed with two of the best tracks on Pom Pom. ‘Black Ballerina’ took a busted synth riff like Suicide doing the Ghostbusters theme and turns it into the biggest dance-off of the night, complete with the multi-parted vocal characterisation of the recorded version. The affecting and sentimental ballad ‘Picture Me Gone’ resulted in a sing-along to close, complete with the best lead vocal of the night.
Throughout the night Pink was agitated: he initially emerged bizarrely shouting the names of investment banks; a part where he loudly exhorts people to “buy the merch” goes on a little too long for comfort, while his frustration with the crowd leads him to admonish them for “not having enough sex”. The show itself ended without an encore, well before eleven and with a set-list that pales in comparison to the night before. It’s a small scale example of the self-sabotage that makes him a love-it-or-hate it proposition. His constant reassurance that he’s “only joking” wears extremely thin.
There’s some artists you forgive the odd off night, the Fall spring immediately to mind. Ariel Pink remains one of the most talented artists of his time, that more people don’t see that is an entirely self-inflicted wound. Reports from that London show referenced above were wildly laudatory, however, this night in Brighton, whilst appealing to his hardcore support, was extremely unlikely to have won him any new fans.