If Man is Five: A Look At the Pixies Catalogue
by paul jaissle
Sometime in the future, the Indie Rock Hall of Fame will induct the first members to its hallowed halls somewhere in Seattle. While Robert Pollard and Paul Westerberg challenge each other to an epic drinking game and Steve Albini scowls a lot and talks shit behind people's backs, the Pixies might finally be offered the praise and adulation they have deserved for so many years.
Comprised of guitarist Joey Santiago, drummer David Lovering, bass slinger Kim Deal, and front man/hysterical screamer Black Francis, the Pixies forged a legendary sound that thousands of college radio DJs had been waiting for. In the pre-Nevermind alternative nation of 1987, this quartet of Boston college students unknowingly began playing a brand of rock and roll that influenced all sorts of kids across the country and eventually lead to a so called 'grunge' revolution in the early 1990s. Much like the Stooges and the Ramones before them, the group had no idea what would become of their musical offerings, the influence of which lasted much longer than the band itself.
For those not in the know about the Pixies (or those that think R.E.M or Nirvana are 'alternative'), shame on you: they were the greatest musical outfit of the past twenty years. Luckily, their entire catalogue has recently been re-released by 4AD records and is mid-line priced so there is no longer any excuse for not owning it all (for fans, don't panic, the re-issues are not remastered and don't feature any bonus tracks so you don't have to re-buy anything). That being the case, let's take a stroll down memory lane and bask in the brilliance of the Pixies.
Released in 1987, the group's debut EP Come On Pilgrim still sounds fresh 16 years on, not an easy task to accomplish. Indie rock was certainly not new, bands like Black Flag, Husker Du, the Replacements, Minutemen, etc. had all made their mark on the minds of anyone sick of the crap being played on MTV. But, where most of those bands had easily discernible influences, the Pixies emerged with a sound that had never been heard before. Sure, punk, folk, and surf rock were all in there, but the sum was so much better than its parts. Listen to the first track on Pilgrim to get the idea: a simple song structure that alternates between a catchy, melodic verse and a noisy, scathing (but still melodic) chorus with enigmatic lyrics delivered by a singer who goes from sweetly crooning to bloodcurdlingly screaming in a heartbeat. That is really the best I can do to describe the weird amalgam that is the 'Pixies sound.' It's funny that something so difficult to describe sounds to effortless: it's as if the music had existed forever but it wasn't until Black Francis (ex-Charles Thompson) plucked it from his unconscious that the world heard it.
Like the above-mentioned set opener 'Caribou,' the rest of the tracks on Come On Pilgrim pretty much follow the same formula of quiet verse, loud chorus to varied results: 'Ed is Dead' is a punky little rocker, while 'Nimrod's Son' and 'The Holiday Song' are both great examples of Black Francis' brilliant song writing trick. There are also two okay Spanish language (Francis was fond of not only switching between a croon and a scream, but between English and Spanish as well) tracks, and one crummy tune called 'I've Been Tired.' The set closes with the hymn-like 'Levitate Me' which still gives me goose bumps and has been ripped off by every 'alternative' band out there. Honestly, as great 5 or 6 of these 8 songs are, I never listen to this disc. I mean, it's an EP and why would you want to listen to twenty minutes of the Pixies when you can listen to a 40 minute full length? Especially when their first full length is the ground breaking Surfer Rosa.
1988's Surfer Rosa is an album that indie snobs and music geeks everywhere love to name drop and shower with never-ending praise. With good reason too, since it is one of the best and most original pieces of music in recent history. This is really where the Pixies struck creative gold and captured the mind of hipsters and college kids everywhere. The songs themselves aren't all that different than the ones on Pilgrim structure-wise, but they sound a million times more interesting thanks to production from ex-Big Black frontman Steve Albini who loves big, skeletal sounding albums with scratchy guitars and huge drums (although you wouldn't know it since he removed his name from the liner notes and later denounced the band as a crappy college-rock outfit)(of course, Mr. Albini also produced that one Bush album, so what the fuck does he know?). The drums pound like hammers on one's skull, the guitars angrily buzz, and the bass throbs all while Francis unleashes his trademark scream and Joey Santiago proves why he's the best guitar player this side of J Mascis.
That's not to say that the songs aren't as interesting as the production, cause they are much more involving then the ones on their debut. In fact, aside from a re-recording of Pilgrim's 'Vamos,' this disc is flawless. The songs here are perfectly formed chunks of melodic joy that retain a sort of warped pop sensibility and catchiness even under screaming vocals and Joey Santiago's screeching guitar work. The songs here basically prove the idea that the Pixies (like the Ramones) were writing pop songs, but were delivering them in a completely different way, since a majority of these tunes will find themselves hopelessly trapped within your skull days after hearing them. 'Bone Machine,' 'Break My Body,' 'Cactus,' 'I'm Amazed'? All brilliant examples of what people are referring to when they praise the Pixies. Even the odd tunes like the speedball punk of 'Something Against You,' and the jokey 'Tony's Theme' sound like they were recorded on another planet and delivered to us by four intergalactic messengers disguised as college kids. They do Pilgrim's 'Levitate Me' one better with the epic sounding hymn 'Where Is My Mind' complete that sounds both sloppy and masterful at the same time. A more perfect song would be very hard to find, in my opinion. Black Francis even lets Kim Deal write a song on this one in the form of the lilting and beautifully sung tale of large penises called 'Gigantic.' Oh, and be sure to impress all of your hipsters pals by memorizing the studio banter that follows 'Tony's Theme' and 'Vamos.' Try it! It's great fun! Yeah, it would be safe to say that you could just skip Come On Pilgrim and start with this one. The term classic is thrown around with little cause these days, but believe the hyperbole, Surfer Rosa deserves both your praise and time. Kurt Cobain Loved this album so much he hired Albini to produce In Utero.
So how did the Pixies follow up the brilliant Surfer Rosa? Why, with a so-so album with lot's of filler of course! Plenty of people shower 1989's Doolittle with the same praise they do Surfer Rosa, but not me. There are moments of pure brilliance on this album, but there is also a lot of half baked songs and uninteresting production. Listen to those drums: they sound so tiny compared to Surfer Rosa. And the whole affair sounds too glossed over without the big open 'Albini sound.'
But that's nit-picking. What about the songs themselves? Well, of the 15, a solid 8 are great. The opener 'Debaser' is about as perfect a Pixies song there is, and the follow-up 'Tame' is a sore-throated scorcher that features some truly unearthly screams courtesy of Mr. Francis. 'Wave of Mutilation' is okay, but 'I Bleed' is much more interesting thankfully, but still sounds weak compared to some of the others on here. The gang actually out R.E.M's R.E.M on the poppy 'Here Comes Your Man,' which should have been a hit with it's sing-a-long-able chorus and almost annoyingly catchy guitar hook. 'Dead' is a decent little number, but is out done by yet another indie-rock hymn in the form of 'Monkey Gone to Heaven.' How Francis pulls off one classic, moving piece of musical perfection on each album is beyond me, but I'm glad he does. But, as great as that song is, I have to say that the production is a bit much and actually detracts from the greatness of the song. Sorry, but those strings have got to go. Both 'Mr. Grieves' and 'Crackity Jones' are pretty bad, but luckily there is the cheeky little 'La La Love You' to lighten the mood: half of a song sung by the golden-voiced David Lovering. It's cheesy, but I dig it (but I'm a big Go-Go's fan, so what do I know?).
The album closes with a string of keepers starting with the whammy bar bonanza of 'There Goes My Gun,' and the wonderful 'Hey' "Hey' is actually one of the finest songs in the Pixies catalogue with it's skeletal structure and cryptic lyrics. See, Black Francis wrote lyrics that sounded epic and absurd at once. Word has it that he was a big David Lynch fan, and his words have the same sort of artistic quality as Lynch's films in that their meaning is second to the aesthetic quality of the words themselves. 'Hey' is a perfect example of this, and a great song as well.
That's followed with the country tinged dirge 'Silver' which is slowly growing on me, and the scorched earth rocker 'Gouge Away' which again, Mr. Kurt Cobain renamed 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' and used to sell a couple million records. As great as about half of these songs are, I still can't call Doolittle a classic. Sure, it's a good album, and better than most of the crap out there, but it lacks the epic sounding drive of the previous album.
After Doolittle came 1990's Bossanova. This was the first Pixies album I ever heard, so it holds a special place in my cold, black heart. It also marks a shift from the earlier albums in that it has an even more glossy production and Black Francis seems more concerned with surfing and outer space than Biblical imagery and Lynchian dreamscapes. This is highlighted by the instrumental opener 'Cecilia Ann,' which is a cover of the Surftones' song and the song 'Ana,' which features lyrics that spell out SURFER.
'Rock Music' is another screamer that is both scathing and catchy, but after that, most of the songs here stick to the same structure established on Doolittle and is beginning to sound a little tired. But that's not to say these songs aren't good, since in some cases, the melodies and lyrics are much more interesting and memorable than parts of Doolittle. 'Velouria,' for example is a perfect example of the pop-rock genius the group had perfected, as is the speedy little 'Allison.' Even with the generic sounding production, the greatness of Francis' songwriting.
For example, 'Is She Weird' has the same slinky, haunting quality that made Surfer Rosa so great with a new melodic twist that makes it both catchy and creepy. And even though these songs may not sound as groundbreaking as the ones on the two previous album, they are capable of becoming stuck in your head much more easily than the filler of Doolittle even if they do sound like standard 'alternative' rock tunes. The epic hymn this time comes in the form of the fantastic 'Dig For Fire,' which I believe holds its own among both 'Where Is My Mind' and 'Monkey Gone To Heaven,' even if the lyrics are more 'talky' than sung. 'Down To The Well' isn't that great, neither is 'All Over the World.' 'The Happening' starts off as simply okay, but eventually gives way to a gorgeous musical passage that almost outshines the grandeur of 'Dig For Fire.' 'Blown Away' and 'Hang Wire' are both great Pixies tune, but they do sound a little forced when you realize this is the same band that made Surfer Rosa sound so effortless. Overall, this is probably the weakest of the Pixies output. Of course, it's still a great record that puts most other bands to shame. Apparently Black Francis and Kim Deal hated each other's guts at this point and that could be blamed for the quality of Bossanova.
The band's final statement is 1991's Trompe Le Monde, which most fans regard as the worst of the bunch. Oh, but how wrong they are. This is actually my favorite album of the band's, even if it does have the most un-apologetically glossy rock production and sounds lightyears different from Surfer Rosa. Never had the band rocked harder or more straight forward then on here, but more importantly, the melodies are wonderful on this disc. Even the ugly melodies sound grand and gorgeous here. Call me crazy, but I love this album.
Things start with the title track which proves that this will be a very different affair from Doolittle sonically, but the real rock doesn't kick in until 'Planet of Sound' delivers all the distorted guitar goodness one could hope for. Gil Norton, who produced the last two albums, actually does a great job here. The drums still sound tiny, but the guitars are huge and have all sorts of edge to them. I also love the way there are no pauses between songs here: as soon as 'Planet of Sound' ends, 'Alec Eiffel' starts up and eventually finishes with a soaring, keyboard-fueled coda. 'The Sad Punk' is a perfect example of how Francis turns ugly, angry melodies into sonic honey. The songs starts with a screamy loud part but turns into a wonderful melodic pop tune. Some say that this album is marred by the sound of a band trying too hard to re-create it's glorious past, but I don't hear it. Everything that made the Pixies great is here, it has just been turned up to 11.
Every tune on Trompe Le Monde is a keeper: memorable and catchy with enough sonic crunch to make even the most jaded hipster air-guitar. And how does one not absolutely love 'U-Mass'? Or 'Distance Equals Rate Times Time'? Or even the nightclub seduction of 'Subbacultcha'? All great songs. And the epic centerpiece 'Letter to Memphis' ranks as my all time favorite Pixies number without a doubt. Even the Jesus and Mary Chain cover tune is great! Fourteen wonderful rock songs and a great cover? What more do you want? It's too bad the group called it quits, because this album could have granted the Pixies the success they deserved. Trompe Le Monde is much better than Nevermind (of course, teenage girls would never have plastered their lockers with pictures of Black Francis the way they did with Cobain and co.) and it is certainly better than any of those 'grunge' bands that followed in its wake.
The only disc that I pull out more than Surfer Rosa or Trompe Le Monde is the At The BBC disc that came out in 1998 and was also re-issued this year. It's not an official album release, but it is still one of the best examples of the brilliance of this band money can buy. Fifteen songs which include: one unlistenable Beatles cover ('Wild Honey Pie'), 5 off Doolittle (including a much better, slowed down version of 'Wave of Mutilation'), 3 from Bossanova, 2 off Trompe Le Monde and Come On Pilgrim each, 1 B-side, and a cover of 'The Lady In the Radiator Song' from David Lynch's film Eraserhead, which is great. All of these tunes were recorded for John Peel's radio show, and feature much more bare-bones production which suits them well. This disc is just as essential as any of the albums, if you ask me, so go buy it today.
After the break up of the group, Kim Deal started the Breeders with her twin sister Kelley, Black Francis re-named himself Frank Black and releases lots of albums with little fanfare, David Lovering has a traveling science show, and Joey Santiago quit music to become a gun-slinger and bring his own brand of justice to the still untamed West (or something). But regardless of where they are now, the Pixies will always hold a place in the heart of millions who are holding out for a reunion of the group, and I'm one of them.