A Buyers Guide to Pixies

Just imagine what rock music over the last 25 years would have been without the influence of Pixies. Few bands have had the all-infusing influence that Pixies have demonstrated and fewer can claim to have had a direct impact on two of the biggest rock acts of a generation. Indeed, both Nirvana and Radiohead are/were unashamed in their adoration for Pixies, and just consider how many acts that just those two bands have influenced… and that’s before you consider the less obvious impact that Pixies had on the likes of PJ Harvey, Badly Drawn Boy, David Bowie… I could go on…

Stripping down Pixies to the very basics, they only released five albums during the initial run of their career, and one of those was a mini-album. That’s a relatively modest output when you consider that the shock waves created by these five albums are still being felt today.

The story started when Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV (AKA Black Francis, AKA Frank Black), contacted former college roommate Joseph Alberto Santiago (AKA Joey Santiago) inviting him to form a band. After a legendary advert in the local music press for a bass player that was in to Husker Du and Peter, Paul and Mary, there was only one response, but that response was from none other than Kimberley Ann Deal (AKA Mrs John Murphy, AKA Kim Deal), whose husband (presumably Mr John Murphy) knew drummer David Lovering (AKA Dave Lovering).

The first fruits of this band were a series of demos that later became the legendary Purple Tape, from which was curated mini album Come on Pilgrim. Such was the energy of The Purple Tape, that record label 4AD decided that they could just lift the tracks directly from the demos without any need for professional mastering. This resulted in a debut release which sounded like no other and found huge praise from the UK music press. Musically Come on Pilgrim was energetic, brutal and uncompromising, lyrically it was laden with blood-seeped religious imagery topped with Francis’ unearthly scream. Levitate Me”, “Vamos”, “Nimrod’s Song” and “I’ve Been Tired”, no one had experienced rock music like this before and it seemed that the sky was genuinely the limit.

Having established themselves as darlings of the weekly music presses, demonstrated that they were one of the most visceral live acts of the period and a genuinely exciting band in the studio, the only thing they hadn’t done was release a full length album to wow their fans. They recorded their full-length debut, Surfer Rosa, with the engineering assistance of Steve Albini (who is definitely not a producer – he says so himself) and if anything, it managed to raise the bar from Come on Pilgrim. Surfer Rosa was a success on every level, from jaw-dropping opener “Bone Machine”, iconic tunes like “Where is My Mind”, “Gigantic” and “Cactus”, to all out fun tracks like “Tony’s Theme” and “Oh My Golly” and even a re-run of “Vamos”, it was a fantastically dynamic album on which they firmly established themselves as one of the premier American bands of the era.

From Francis’ wild vocals, to Santiago’s idiosyncratic guitar heroics, Lovering’s anvil drums and Deal having her moment in the spotlight with “Gigantic”, Surfer Rosa was the sound of an exciting rock band firing on all cylinders and presenting themselves on the world stage as one of the finest acts in the world. It remains one of the single most influential albums of the rock genre and was the album that Nirvana pointed to as the primary inspiration for their “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Yes, it really is that good.

Second full album Doolittle could have been a damp squib. Steve Albini, the man who had been so vital to getting the ambiance of Surfer Rosa exactly right, wasn’t going to be involved in the make-or-break follow-up. Luckily Gil Norton, the producer that had been hired to replace the ‘sound archivist’ Albini, did the job better than anyone dare hope. Sure, the more produced sound of Doolittle was markedly different to its raw and demo-like predecessors, but the energy and dynamic was still there and the increased depth off sound led to stuff like the sonorous cellos through album highlight “Monkey Gone To Heaven” and the pop vibes of “La La Love You” and “Here Comes Your Man”. That’s not to say that the album lacked power, as songs like “Tame”, “Dead” and “Crackity Jones” are violent little songs and a match for anything on Surfer Rosa.

Doolittle was also where we saw the first cracks in Pixies formidable armour, as some songs were seemingly rushed through when a more sedate, yet menacing, pace would have suited them better. I for one would take the slow and sinister ‘UK Surf’ version of “Wave Of Mutilation” to the breakneck version here on the album. Other songs like “There Goes My Gun” and “Silver” seem like filler compared to the quality of the rest of the material here. Don’t get me wrong, they’re pretty good songs, but compared to the likes of “Gouge Away” and “Debaser”, they’re just not in the same league. In saying that, there are a number of songs here that just don’t get the attention they deserve, while fans of the band could name there three favourite songs from the album almost immediately, I would wager that very few would mention either “No. 13 Baby” or “Hey”, which to me are two of Doolittle’s most interesting songs.

This was the album that cemented Pixies success in Europe, as it consolidated what had gone before while showing that the band could still sound awe inspiring even when they were being produced and not relying on Albini’s idiosyncratic recording techniques. If you’re looking at getting in to Pixies, then Doolittle, along with Surfer Rosa should be your first purchases.

After releasing two out and out classic alt-rock albums, Black Francis (and presumably the rest of Pixies) decided to soften their sound a little and head for more commercial sounding pastures, with an album inspired by surf music, Francis’s obsession with UFOs and furnishing fabric.

After the attack of Surfer Rosa and Doolittle, first time listeners can be wrong-footed by Bossanova, which with its more accessible sound can be a bit of a let down if you expected more of the same as what had gone before. After a couple of listens though, you begin to realise that songs like “Is She Weird” and “Dig For Fire” are as strong as anything that Black Francis had written previously, but with the sharp jagged edges sanded down to make it slightly easier to handle for the uninitiated. Eventually you also start to appreciate the strange little songs like “Rock Music”, “Allison” and “Ana” and realise that they are the sound of Pixies having fun in the studio.

While Francis’s obsession with UFO’s can get a little distracting, particularly on “The Happening”, it does at least add a dimension to his songwriting that hadn’t been hinted at on previous albums. Throughout the album there seems to be lines which hint to a successful line in eco-fables if the mood every took them. Overall though, this is the sound of a band who had established such a defined sound over their first clutch of releases, that when they decided to try and experiment with something a little different and expand their sonic pallet, it wasn’t exactly what their fans were expecting. It wasn’t bad, just different.

Taken on its own merits, Bossanova is a fine little album, which proudly displays its debt to surf guitar music and was an obvious attempt by the band to prevent themselves from going stale and churning out the same material time and time again. Although I don’t play Bossanova very often, I always enjoy it when I do and I’m left wondering why more bands don’t write material like “Havalina”.

Following the poppy surf-guitar sound experiment that was the charming Bossanova, Trompe Le Monde was the sound of a band tearing into each other, with its loud, aggressive guitars, choppy lyrics, the return of Black Francis’s unearthly scream and the unspoken threat of violence.

Some of Pixies best moments are to be found on this album, however it always seems to be relegated to the position of least loved studio album by this most inspirational of bands. Trompe Le Monde sounds bitty, as if it is a collection of good songs that were never intended to be put on the same album. It sounds as if the band had recorded enough material for the album and then just shuffled the tracks randomly and kept the songs in that order. There’s little in the way of the tension-and-release dynamics that had made their early albums so thrilling. The material is still there, as “Planet Of Sound”, “Space (I Believe In)” and the brilliant “Subbacultcha” demonstrated, though admittedly “Subbacultcha” was a song from the Purple Tape that hadn’t found its way on to any of the band’s previous albums.

Francis’s continuing obsession with all things sci-fi does colour proceedings to a certain extent and there’s more filler than you would expect on a Pixies album, but on the whole the project is saved by the seering guitar work of Francis and Joey Santiago, which goes some way to making this one of the harder rocking albums by the band – The metallic power of a song like “U-Mass” ensures that Trompe Le Monde can rarely be classed as a tedious listen. Even the cover of “Head On” is an enjoyable listen.

Ultimately though, Trompe Le Monde is the sound of Black Francis realising the limitations of Pixies and getting frustrated. It’s still a good album, it’s just that despite it’s moments of strength, it just also happens to be the weakest of Pixies four full studio albums.

Following Trompe Le Monde Black Francis called it a day with Pixies, though apparently he hadn’t discussed it with the rest of the band before announcing it. It came as a shock to their fans and their record label too, as so many of the internationally successful bands of the early 90s owed a huge sonic debt to Pixies.

The following decade would see Deal achieve success with The Breeders, Black Francis launch his solo career as Frank Black, while Santiago and Lovering had much more low-key careers compared to their former band mates.

Despite all this, the influence of Pixies continued to be felt throughout rock music and their record label 4AD did their best to cash in on it with a best-of compilation and the inevitable collections of radio sessions and b-sides, nonce of which added much to Pixies reputation, other than confirming to long term fans that the hidden gems were few and far between and that the four original full length albums and Come on Pilgrim were pretty much definitive with the exception of maybe one or two tracks.

For the first decade following their split, Francis opposed any notion that they should maybe reform, Deal remained open to negotiation and Santagio and Lovering seemed frustrated by Francis’ reluctance.

They finally reunited in 2003 for a series of money-spinning live dates, yet another best-of, an accompanying DVD on which Deal is conspicuously absent during the documentary and eventually a series of live albums. Littlre new material was recorded during this period, other than the Deal-penned “Bam Thwok”.

The last couple of years have seen Deal depart to be replaced by Kim Shattuck of The Muffs. A couple of EPs of new material have been released and a new album featuring the EPs called Indie Cindy is poised for release in the next few weeks. I’ve not heard the new album yet, but I’m prepared to be pleasantly surprised, despite my cynicism of the regular pattern great bands reforming to record half-baked come back albums.

For me Pixies reputation hangs solely on the material they recorded and released between 1987 and 1991 and their legendary live performances during that period. Few bands have influenced so many other acts which have gone on to be influential themselves, and due to that there will always be something special about Pixies.

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