"I've kissed mermaids, rode the El Niño."
While C’mon Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa had hooked many people into the Pixies with their abrasive sounding crunching alt rock, 1989s Doolittle saw them take a different approach, with a sound which saw them being ‘produced‘ for the first time. C’mon Pilgrim had effectively been polished up demos, and Surfer Rosa had seen the band work with Steve Albini, a man who continues to shirk the term ‘producer’ in favour of ‘sound archivist’, while Doolittle found the band being produced by Gil Norton, who managed to retain the band’s sense of aggression, while also smoothing off some of their rougher edges. Whether this was a good thing is a matter of debate, after all, there is an argument to be made that Surfer Rosa in particular is Pixies’ definitive release, and that Doolittle could have been improved if the band had managed bring Steve Albini back in, However, Norton was able to give Pixies a fuller and richer sound, best typified by the layered strings that underpin key Doolittle track, “Monkey Gone to Heaven”. Norton’s production must have impressed the band, their management, and the 4AD label, as his services were retained on every Pixies album until their latest in 2016.
Doolittle opens with “Debaser”, a breakneck pile of riffs moulded into the form of a dynamic rock song which manages to strike a balance between sounding just enough like something from their previous album for fans to find it reassuringly familiar, while also confirming that the band was evolving. It’s the perfect way to open Doolittle, and it sets the tone for the rest of the album perfectly, as does “Tame”, which sounds for all the world like the band tearing up sonic phonebooks in a Geoff Capes style. True, those that prefer the more abrasive sounds as captured by Albini may yearn for them on these two tracks, but you also have to admit that Gil Norton very much ‘got’ what Pixies were trying to achieve and gave them the production that made the most of their particular approach to rock and roll songs.
Doolittle isn’t just about full on rock sounds either. Both “La La Love You” and “Here Comes My Man” have hearts of pure retro-pop, and both sound considerably more cheery and melodious than anything that Pixies had released before. True, some may consider tracks like these to be goofy, but you can’t really argue with the fact that they gave Pixies the opportunity to demonstrate a much greater musical range, and provided a springboard to expand their music in a variety of directions in future, particularly on the surf-rock indebted Bossanova album that would be released the following year. These forays into accessibility betrayed the fact that, along with their non-more-cool punk and alt-rock influences, they were equally as influenced by all manner of mainstream guitar-pop acts.
Thirty years after its release, Doolittle still sounds great today. With Pixies diversifying their sound, a track listing which boasts some of their best tunes, Norton a steady hand on production, and the whole album clocking in at a taught and flab-free 39 minutes, it remains a life-affirming listen and a brilliant companion piece to Surfer Rosa. True, it’s shame that Kim Deal wasn’t given much more time to shine outside of the single track “Silver” and backing vocals, but all in all Doolittle managed to preserve a lot of Pixies greatness, while also allowing them to advance and evolve beyond their angular quiet/loud alt-rock.