Ariel Pink considers Before Today to be his band Haunted Graffiti's first record, though it isn't. It's hard to say exactly how many home-recordings he's done, but it's certainly more than the handful of Haunted Graffiti CDs that have found proper, after-the-fact release. It is the first material he's produced in a studio, with a waiting audience in mind. While that makes a huge difference in terms of consistency and focus, it's striking how true to those shaggy DIY efforts it feels. Pink's music has always taken genres self-conscious alternative teens were conditioned to ignore—puffy 80s chart hits, unpasteurized 70s cheese—and refracted them until they were timelessly inscrutable. In an information vacuum, these sounds disorient. When was this music possibly produced? Well, sometime Before Today. His songs always get described as "transmissions from an AM station that never was" or, giving him more credit for intent, as the sound of a couple decades of mainstream pop filtered though the evasions of the 90s lo-fi underground. As sleazy saxophones blanket "Hot Body Rub," VCR dubs of syndicated cop shows seem just as apt a metaphor. What seems old and cheap now was once a sincere aesthetic choice. Before Today works because it never winks.<.p>
Sporadic successes amid the sprawling Haunted Graffiti catalog have been blamed for spawning the hyped and maligned subgenre "chillwave," and a couple years' worth of bands with gentle grooves in direct proportion to their static hiss (Washed Out and Neon Indian prominent among them). In a memorable rant against the style, New York Times critic Jon Pareles seethed, "It's annoyingly noncommittal music, backing droopy vocals with impersonal sounds—a hedged, hipster imitation of the pop they're not brash enough to make." Pink's not hedging. With a bigger production budget, slicked-up hits like this record's "Round and Round" and "Can't Hear My Eyes," go full-bore Hall and Oates, their compact run times engorged with marble-smooth hooks. But odd twists still litter even the most streamlined productions. Pink halts "Round and Round" to meekly answer a phone call. He sings everything in voices too cartoonish to be trusted, but too deadpan for overt mockery. Personality is not a problem.
It's a singular weirdness in Ariel Pink's persona that elevates him above his imitators. In another era he might have been Gary Wilson, forgotten by all but a few obscurists until some 21st-century Beck called him out on a radio single. But the easy connectivity of the Internet provides concrete knowledge of an audience, and thus a reason to edit down his self-amused hodge-podge into a coherent aesthetic that's suddenly easy for new bands to superficially copy, fail to top. A song like "L'estat (acc. To the widow's maid)" which runs its Harlequin romance storyline through maniac twists, through weird "Lollipop" cheek noises and crazed "Cheer up!"s, but also through exacting structure which repeats all these tangents again, on cue, is unthinkable coming from any one else working in this style. It's outsider art that's strictly verse-chorus-verse. It's satisfying to see Before Today as a summation of Pink's work to this point, an itch finally scratched. He clearly sees it as the beginning of something more.