How are you getting on with the latest incarnation of Pixies? Some of it’s OK. We got Head Carrier on the strength bouncing around to Um Chagga Lagga when it came on the radio. And it’s fine. But there’s the late 80s/early 90s stuff upstairs so…
Here’s the thing though. The Pixies album I find myself going back to most often isn’t one of the obvious first three records (by which I mean Come on Pilgrim, Surfer Rosa and Doolittle). Partly that’s because they have become so thoroughly part of my musical DNA that in some ways I no more feel the need to listen to them than I feel the need to read a book on how to ride a bike. Neither is it Bossanova or Trompe Le Monde – which are both cherishable in their own way. No, the Pixies album I find myself going back to isn’t even actually a Pixies album at all. It’s on the iPod under the name Frank Black.
I do think Charles Thompson’s solo career (under whatever name) is often unfairly maligned. There’s a strong critical prejudice, certainly in this country, against craft. ‘Effortless’ is aspirational, ‘workmanlike’ pejorative. It’s a galling, kneejerk thing. A lingering hangover from the days of the gentleman amateur taking a ‘pure’ approach, unencumbered by grubby practicalities and lording it (sometimes literally) over the sullied efforts of the wage-earning ‘player’. Carefully crafted songwriting can be just as rewarding to listen to as the most inspired bit of out-there sonic art. Just think of the pleasure to be drawn from artisans like Richard Hawley and even Nick Cave (who chops and changes a bit, but who has mused at length on the craft of songwriting). And it’s a craft that’s exercised with some considerable skill on a number of Frank Black albums. But I’m going to stop before getting tempted to overdo it and promote one over the other. Not least because the record I have in mind isn’t one of those well-turned pieces. Quite the opposite in many ways. It’s as daft as a busload of brushes. It’s nearly as odd in relation to those original Pixies albums as they were in to everything else that was going on when they came out.
A decade ago, if people bought the Frank Black Francis CD at all it was probably for the first disc, a historical solo performance of the songs that became the Purple Tape and then the Pixies proper. But it’s the second CD, a thoroughly gleeful assault on his own back catalogue, which has turned out to be the real gem for me (when I first ran the rule over it I liked it well enough, but my appreciation has grown over a decade). Armed with radiophonic gadgetry and enthusiastically parping brass section, Frank sets about the sacred cows with abandon, slowing the songs down to produce the best sort of cover versions – ones that are instantly recognisable but wandering off in all sorts of directions. Caribou eases you in, spacey with relatively subtle brass textures. Where Is My Mind wanders all over the shop, pinned down by a repetitive beat and adorned with drifts of jazz sax. No, wait, come back! Come on, it’s a song that’s treated far too reverently by everyone else after all. And it gets odder from there. Particular favourites are the euphoria and wind chimes of Levitate Me, the plaintive brass and oscillator builds of Velouria, the curiously groovy oompah of the Holiday Song, the malevolent drone of Into the White… Even Subbacultcha, never a fave before, is pretty special when welded to wheezing, parping mechanicals and slinking middle-eastern textures. But the fabulous monster that rounds it all off is best of all. A 15-minute sister-rayification of Planet of Sound that hypnotically builds and builds, fades out and then comes again, oppressive and wonderful at the same time, a totally different beast from the original single and album versions.
It is, above all, a lot of fun – more so than leaping around to Un Chagga Lagga. So, if you need a new Pixies fix why not try a properly odd, properly fun, record first?