From The Worst To The Best Of Pixies
by Oliver Rose
Photo Credit: Roland.co.uk)
It’s definitely the weakest of their albums, but Indie Cindy did not deserve the stick it got on release. Comprised of 12 songs extracted from three EPs released September 2013 – March 2014, the record lacked gritty production, interesting cover art and, much to fans’ despair, founding member Kim Deal, who quit during rehearsals in June 2013. These obstacles considered however, the record is by no means unlistenable and stylistically it does a fair job of following their previous album released 23 years prior. There is some weak material here, it must be said. Snakes’ lyrics are unforgivably awful (“snakes are coming to your town / in tunnels underground”) and Ring The Bell is horribly zingy (Santiago allegedly used a 12-string Rickenbacker on this track, and while that’s one of my favouriteguitars, it has no place in a band famed for post-punk thrashers about devils and mutilation). There are redeeming moments though – more than most will admit. On What Goes Boom, the band are a stomping behemoth, with Santiago’s screeching lead expertly double-teaming Francis’ crazy, random vocals. Meanwhile, Bagboy introduces a sort of LCD Soundsystem, anti-dance vibe with nasty, spoken-word vocals laid over a filthy drum machine and bawling guitar – it’s a new texture, but it works. Elsewhere, the shimmery, sci-fi-inclined Andro Queen recalls Havalina (and Bossanova generally); the title track is also noteworthy as the most direct shot at Pixies’ infamous loud-quiet-loud dynamic. Overall, it’s worth your time. Just be careful whilst aiming any vitriol, as the real criminal here is long-time producer Gil Norton. Never was autopilot alt-rock production so utterly unwelcome.
Trompe le Monde
Often jokingly referred to as Black Francis’ first solo record, Trompe le Monde is a closer cousin of Indie Cindy than today’s derisory fans will admit. Amongst this record’s failings are Kim Deal’s virtually non-existent bass playing (she’s painfully low in the mix) and whiplash mastering that leaves an uncomfortable lack of space between the relentless 16 strong tracklist. Otherwise, Pixies’ fourth full-length is charmingly experimental, for example the use of keyboards on Alec Eiffel and Motorway To Roswell are delightfully abrasive. Tracks like The Sad Punk and Space (I Believe In) just happen. Gone are the normal and expected facets of technical pace, replaced instead with huge, explosive starts, wild structural modulation and oddly immediate finishes. Trompe le Monde also worked as an outlet for material that had been dogging the band for years prior; Subbacultcha first appeared on the purple Pixies demo cassette, and the riff for U-Mass was written during Francis and Santiago’s university days together. Oddly for a record so viciously alternative, it’s the more standard designs that really shine here: Bird Dream Of The Olympus Mons is an exemplary Pixies track, toying playfully with volume and breadth from its soft organ beginning to its thrashing, crunchy climax. Similarly, the long-distance love of Letter to Memphis, almost a pop-song for all its melodic reservations, is really rather catchy. More than anything though, Trompe le Monde is really kinda sad. With the frenetic inconsistencies of Frank Black’s ’93 solo outing and Kim Deal at her most aurally oppressed yet, it’s an all-too-clear precursor to Pixies’ initial, and at the time final, dissolution.
Come On Pilgrim / the Purple Tape
In a bid to get signed, Pixies, like every other band in the history of ever, whipped up a demo cassette. 4AD’s Ivor Watts eventually heard the 17 track tape and (at the behest of his girlfriend apparently) signed Black Francis and co. Watts liked the tape (pictured) so much in fact, that he had eight of its tracks remixed into Pixies’ first release, the mini-LP, Come on Pilgrim. With the remaining nine tracks eventually released in 2002 on an eponymous EP, it’s now possible to re-construct the demo tape - with, albeit, inconsistent mastering thanks to Watt’s ’87 remixes. The collection gets an honorary mention here, as it’s not really an album, but, combining its miniature parts essentially gets you a forty-minute bootleg compilation. The songs are really good though; comprised of Francis’ earliest compositions, virtually every track toys with explicitly violent or sexual material and playfully buoyant instrumentation. Of particular note is the very-Frank blend of Hispanic musical textures and incestuous lyrics. Nimrod’s Son and Broken Face are about the most grotesque art-rock songs going, and they’re neatly complemented by a cover of In Heaven (Lady In The Radiator Song) from David Lynch’s equally horrific Eraserhead. Many of these songs would turn up on later Pixies releases: in particular, Here Comes Your Man evolved significantly before its inclusion on Doolittle. Another little nugget for fans of these tracks: Black Francis recorded a live demo session, solo, with the studio engineer for this tape on the night before the full band recorded together. The performance is available in its entirety on the second disc of Frank Black Francis, a compilation released in 2004 with experimental Francis remakes of Pixies tracks forming disc one.
It’s not their best, but Bossanova is my favourite Pixies album. Mixing their penchant for ugly sexual politics and proto-grunge alternative rock with a love for UFOs and surf-rock, it’s just about the most texturally experimental thing they ever committed to tape. Opening with a saccharin cover of The Surftones’ Cecilia Ann, Black Francis continues to vacillate between the beautiful and the hideous for the duration of the album, hurtling next into the hollered Rock Music and then immediately after into the melodic anthem, Velouria. Pixies give typically bizarre nods to other stuff throughout the album, too: the bounding Allison is a tribute to the jazz pianist, Allison Mose. Later, Havalina closes the album with a breezy, beachy sway that recalls the bubblegum-pop of the 60s before it does the anarcho-punk of the mid-80s. A quick personal note: one of my favourite Pixies songs is on Bossanova - The Happening. It plays very nicely with the band’s aural dynamic, using structural oscillation in tandem with the textural perhaps most explicitly in any Pixies song. It’s also one of their longer cuts at 4:19. The whole aliens thing is a really cute avenue for Pixies to have explored; it makes sense given their total aesthetic opposition to the mainstream, and yet it’s rooted in something very pop – the ‘50s sci-fi boom. If you try, you can take any Pixies album and strip it back to the creative forces of Black Francis; doing this here, it’s easy to see how Bossanova could ostensibly be about growing out of the commercially pretty and into the more outwardly vile. It’s easily the most sugary footnote in punk’s immediate legacy.
There are two camps of Pixies fan. With only one record left on this countdown, you now know which one I’m in… The top two positions on this list are more or less interchangeable, but for me, it has to be Doolittle here at number two. This was my first Pixies LP; it’s still a bloody delight to listen to and it’s the first place I’d send a newcomer. For the 38 minute duration, this album is a mad blitzkrieg of gritty guitars and contorted pop-rock sensibilities, showcasing an insane breadth of taste, from the heretically foul Dead to the irreverently bouncy La La Love You. In between times, Doolittle makes the divisive topics of bodily mutilation (Gouge Away) and Satan-worship (No. 13 Baby) radio-friendly. Musically, the band is on top form here, too, and Kim Deal’s bass is beautifully prominent, particularly on tracks like the throbbing I Bleed and Hey. Doolittle is a perfect record, and even its associates are at their peak: 4AD mainstay Vaughan Oliver produces excellent artwork for the album and its singles, while Gil Norton is the formidable dynamic overlord at the desk. Every single song here is excellent; it’s one of very few albums to which one could award 10⁄10. And let’s not forget, of course, Debaser, Doolittle’s opening track and crown jewel. Arguably the best song in the entirety of the band’s weird canon, it details a perverse desire to impress girls with grotesque art-house cinema, specifically Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (essential viewing I might add). It’s quintessential to the core: untrained screaming from Black Francis, a scorching lead line from Santiago, pounding drums from Dave Lovering, and beautiful, butter-wouldn’t-melt backing vocals from the lovely Kim Deal. Fantastic.
A moment then to consider that which supersedes the perfect, that which exists in a realm beyond flawlessness: truly impenetrable, 11⁄10 art. If there were such a thing, it would look and sound exactly like Surfer Rosa. Doolittle might just be the most rigorously engineered work in Pixies’ catalogue, but it’s still a million miles short of its gloriously ephemeral predecessor. The otherworldly nature of its untouchable sound is largely due to the masterly presence of alternative-rock legend, Steve Albini, at the controls. His reverb-laden, live drum sound is the stuff of legends. Elsewhere in the mix, his absurdly astute ear for the dynamics of live music brings every element of the band to the forefront and yet manages to never overcrowd the mix. The frenzied vocals and spastic guitars, while similar in tone to those rampaging all over Trompe le Monde, are instead chaotic by design, and testament to this intentional mess are the spoken word segments glued to the start of Vamos and I’m Amazed. Surfer Rosa is also home to Pixies’ best songs, including Gigantic, penned by Kim Deal; it’s perhaps the most syrupy song ever to praise the legendary enormity of black penises. Other highlights include the excellently seedy Cactus, later covered by long-time superfan, David Bowie, and the visceral Something Against You. Not to mention, of course, the timeless Where Is My Mind? To hear Pixies at their most magnificent, look no further than Surfer Rosa, but work towards it; like a fine wine, it is best appreciated with experience of the Pixies flavour.