Another day, another bumper pack of technicolour LPs, bundled up in cardboard and scrawled with marker pen, arrive in The Wire office from the US. The LP sleeves are homemade swirls of paint and typeface, quickly made and capturing a moment of frantic creation.
Before even putting them on the record deck, I have a fair idea as to how these discs might sound: long reverb trails on the guitar, deep hues of fuzz, and an intuitive, lo-fi feel. The explosion of lo-fi rock from the US in recent years has carried some revelatory moments, a fair amount of uninspired dross, but it all fizzes with a certain energy and can-do methodology. It raises a key question, and one which cuts across a great deal of music passing through the office at the moment: is the vogue for lo-fi more than a taste for sonic texture, a fad for scuffed-up surfaces? Another way to read this is that lo-fi is just a kind of backyard exoticism, a mindless delight in an 'other' which happens to come from a fucked-up effects pedal. On a practical level, lo-fi can blur the most ugly playing into vaguely graceful shapes, like a blob of vaseline on the lens.
As a side note, it's worth noting that criticism can be complicit in obscuring what's going on in lo-fi music too. There's a swarm of stock ideas that music writers reach for when they hear lo-fi methods and cheap reverb: ideas of distancing, haunting, ghosts in the four-track, some of which stick, others of which have become lazy rhetorical flourishes.
This explosion in the last few years isn't simply down to Ariel Pink, but many of the albums that come through the office echo the lo-fi dynamics of his amazing run of homemade CD-Rs from the 2000s (House Arrest being the one that turned my head around). So these questions about the potential worth of lo-fi methods sent me back to his work to try and recover what's fresh about them.
The way you work with a 4-track is to record tracks, bounce them down on top of each other, overdub more to taste, and then the whole thing is pretty much set in stone. Once you've bounced down tracks you can't rework them, and tape bleed means the elements blend into each other. But this whole mass can be worked with as malleable blob of rhythm and form, with tracks EQ'd together, and sped up or slowed down en mass. The attack of the drums, the fizz of the percussion, they can be squeezed and moulded away from the usual physical constraints of whacking real drums in a real studio. You lose all sense of actual physical scale, of large events versus small events, and it all becomes flow. When you'd expect a guitar solo, a pure ejaculation of distorted tone is all you need.
All this is a way of saying that the formal flow of Ariel Pink's older work is, for me, far more exhilarating than in his later, more hi-fi work. Tracks have rhythms that work because of the way the 4-track blends it all together – whacked biscuit-tins become huge splashes of noise, mouth sounds create intimate percussive shifts.
Ariel himself sounds like a different person on each track, and sometimes within each track. From gravelly growls to pristine helium vocals, the 4-track blends them all together. Sometimes there're no actual words being sung. On "Hardcore Pops Are Fun" and "Interesting Results" he's actually commenting on the production process itself – "going through this big transition phase... here we go again... I'm not going to try any more.... it may not be much but let's see what you got." There's no static protagonist stationed in the words, but a burbling inner monologue reveling in a state of total sensational flux.
What I dug from revisiting Ariel's methods was how amazingly malleable the lo-fi process is. Ambiguity of sound and lyrics is a springboard for formal innovation rather than just a reverse-snobbish taste for abrasive sounds, or a way to mask shoddy playing. Every single track on House Arrest sounds completely different, a line-up of imaginary groups, a process which resembles plastic sculpture more than it does the step-by-step process of the usual recording studio.
There's absolutely no denying that Ariel Pink's work is retro to the max, and for some the mere echo of 80s pop music immediately causes a gag reflex to kick in. But the music of that decade was so ambitious and chaotic that there's still enough gold among the shit for a canny operator to recover and remould. These kind of methods in the hands of new players like Hype Williams, Matrix Metals or LA Vampires are still valuable tools.