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Welcome to One Track Minded, where we pick a select cut from a chosen act and delve beneath the surface. This time out, Mark Conroy gets lost in a modern pop masterpiece of epic proportions…
Ariel Marcus Rosenberg was perhaps just never meant to be famous. I think we broke him, guys. Or maybe more aptly we just put the limelight on the grown-up version of the strange, mostly harmless and socially stunted kid that our parents made us have pity play-dates with.
In 2011, just around the time Ariel Pink was beginning to get some name recognition after his critically acclaimed Before Today record dropped the year prior, he gave a famously disengaged performance at Coachella. In the half of the set that he didn’t have his back to the crowd, Rosenberg crouched down just out of view and let his supporting band, Haunted Grafitti, close out the rest of the show.
Looking back, the scene calls to mind the climatic meltdown of a gig in Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, in which the eponymous papier-mâché head and rarefied musician freezes on stage at the uncomfortable prospect of selling himself to a wider, more mainstream audience. I suppose in this analogy we would be the artistically disruptive Domhnall Gleeson type and Pink the esoteric, introverted talent that we will never quite understand. Then again, perhaps affording him the troubled genius narrative is to give the man too much credit.
There is an alternative universe in which Ariel Pink never ‘made it’. A universe in which he remained in California, and was quite content to live out the rest of his days crafting DIY lo-fi recordings, selling his own CD’s and become an enduring cult figure. A universe in which he never uttered strangely ageist attacks at Madonna, never called Grimes “stupid and retarded” for coming to her defence, never told a bizarre story about being maced by a feminist and never showed up on Fox News to talk about space robots. It is a universe in which he doesn’t transform into a walking, talking clickbait article to coincide with an album release and hide behind the defence of playing some sort of postmodern troll character when people call him out on it.
But the forces of serendipity (and, in fairness, raw talent) had other plans. Through a mutual friend, Rosenberg was able to pass on CD-R of his own work to the members of Animal Collective who just happened to have recently started their own label. That CD-R sat on the floor of a van for a week until Panda Bear and co decided to play it. Once heard, they made it their goal to officially release his records on their new label. After releasing some semi-successful solo material, Rosenberg opted to start Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. The band quickly caught the attention of indie giants 4AD before signing with the label in late 2009. A year later, they released their first studio-polished single ‘Round and Round’ and everything changed.
It would be ludicrous to suggest that this song made Ariel Pink a household name, because it still isn’t. What ‘Round and Round’ did accomplish was to turn the man into something of an alt-pop poster boy. Not only did the track wind up top on Pitchfork’s annual Best Of list in 2010 but it was also voted the second best track of the decade so far (2010 -14) by that same publication. In a moment of delicious irony, the top spot on that same list went to Grimes‘ pulsating ‘Oblivion’. High praise indeed and, in truth, much deserved.
There are many things one might find questionable about Ariel Pink, but his ability to craft songs should not be one of them. Much like the man himself, ‘Round and Round’ is a work of contradiction. In his years as a record store clerk, Rosenberg became something of the personification of a pop encyclopedia; consuming large swathes of the genre while listlessly serving customers. To give you an idea of his extensive knowledge, Before Today contains an instrumental cover of an Ethiopian pop song. ‘Round and Round’, however, marked the Californian’s first attempt to make a proper, studio-backed track and he relishes the opportunity, pulling out all the stops to deliver a pop song in the loosest, most brilliantly unconventional sense.
There is no doubt that many elements of this song are deliberately indebted to amongst other things, the open-top drive vibe of 70s and 80s coast FM rock. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rosenberg has no issue shamelessly displaying his allegiances to the popular genre mainstays of those days: the irreverent Stevie Wonder quote, the Bowie vocal mannerisms, the radio-ready Fleetwood Mac harmonising. It’s hard to pick a single aspect of the song that stands out as wholly original and yet there’s an undeniable lasting power here. Most ‘pop’ is designed to emulate an immediately satisfying sprint, but ‘Round and Round’ endures like a marathon runner. It plays the long game.
Ariel Pink knows what’s he’s doing. Here he saturates the soundscape with so much overfamiliarity that he manages to create something decidedly unfamiliar. This is a hit song from another planet – we’ve heard it before, but we also haven’t. ‘Round and Round’ is so close to being a traditional pop song, but it’s not quite there. If there was a pop equivalent to the uncanny valley, this track would lie in that space. Make no mistake, Pink still leaves room for his eccentricities. His fourth wall-breaking lyrics give us play-by-play of the structure itself as he sings of “refrains”, “breakdowns” and even invites his fellow band members in with not-so-cryptic cues. ‘Round and Round’ takes its staples from new wave and funk yet bemoans the fact that it’s “always the same”. There’s nothing new under the sun and we’re hardwired by popular music, so just accept it.
And there’s that chorus (if you want to call it that), a run which seems to be teased out longer and longer with each passing listen. It is a chorus that had surfaced a year before in a crude demo (in hindsight, one wonders how many parts of this song were leftover scraps from pre-existing material). Here, Pink makes us wait through nearly two minutes of the metronome of a bassline before his main attraction rolls in without much ceremony. The hook sinks in only when Pink decides the time is right. “Hold on”, the band collectively and triumphantly croons. He knows full well that’s exactly what we’ve been doing.
For such an unapologetically pop-centric track, ‘Round and Round’ struck a powerful chord among alternative hiptsterdom. Considering how white-bread and set in its ways that indie had become in 2010, perhaps Ariel Pink’s embrace of kitsch was a breath of fresh air. We can wish the man was more like the cheeky, loveable rogue he is in his songs but at least we can choose what to take out of his music. ‘Round and Round’ is likeable, perennial pop, but its roots still lie in the underground. It may sound like every other song you know, but you’ve never heard anything quite like it.