New Zealand is a lovely country, with lots of sheep and mountains, and it’s a good idea to come and visit us if you ever have the chance. Charles Thompson, however, made the right decision in 1986, when he opted out of taking a trip down under to view Halley’s comet, and instead formed a band. He rechristened himself Black Francis, and took some vocal pointers from a Thai rock star. He recruited his roommate Joey Santiago, an unpredictable lead guitarist, Kim Deal (at that point known as Mrs. John Murphy) whose gutsy vocals and bass provided an excellent counterpoint to Francis’ compelling screaming, and David Lovering who held all the various parts together with solid drumming.
The resulting conglomerate, the Pixies, were one of the most idiosyncratic rock bands of their era. Francis cites Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul and Mary as two of his favourite bands, and the Pixies’ music reflects those influences; their melodies are generally poppy and approachable but Santiago’s guitar infuses them with a nastier edge. What really sets the band apart is Francis’ lyrics and vocals; his voice erratically screams its way through whatever topic comes to mind. There are lots of other influences in the band mix too – early sixties surf rock and fellow Boston band The Cars are assimilated into the Pixies sound.
Largely due to tensions between Deal and Francis, the Pixies announced their split in 1993. They’ve periodically reunited, but their post-reunion material has met with some disdain, so I prefer to just focus on their initial burst of brilliance. The film loudQUIETloud is a documentary of the reunion – you see various members struggling with writer’s block, alcoholism, scraping together a living making soundtracks, and performing magic shows, in between playing stellar live versions of the compelling songs they wrote.
Few groups have managed to provide such a high entertainment quotient while maintaining artistic integrity and inspiring a legion of imitators. The much more successful Nirvana are indebted to their use of extreme dynamics. Black Francis started a solo career as Frank Black, while Kim Deal formed The Breeders with her sister.
Pixies Album Reviews
Come on Pilgrim
It’s difficult to separate this debut EP from the Pixies’ debut album, as it’s included as bonus tracks on Surfer Rosa. It’s well worth hearing, but it’s still less essential than their four full length albums. Come On Pilgrim took its name from a quote from CCM pioneer Larry Norman, and was compiled from the demos that the newly formed band sent in as an audition for their record label. It’s similar in feel to Surfer Rosa, but it’s a little more primitive, and doesn’t have as many fully fledged songs.
The Pixies have their sound figured out already, but the songs aren’t as memorable as on their full albums, apart from the gimmicky ‘Caribou’. But there’s some great material here, like ‘Levitate Me’. As an EP Come On Pilgrim is difficult to grade – it’s not as essential as their studio albums, but at the least it provides the CD version of Surfer Rosa with some excellent bonus tracks.
Surfer Rosa follows a similar template to Come on Pilgrim with the same disjointed songs. but it’s more expansive and more idiosyncratic than Come on Pilgrim, and Steve Albini’s production gives the album more impetus.
There are few better three song sequences in recorded music than the trio of ‘Gigantic’, ‘River Euphrates’ and ‘Where Is My Mind?’ located in Surfer Rosa. ‘Gigantic’ is Deal’s vocal spotlight, and sole writing credit; the subject of the song is somewhat distasteful, but it’s awfully catchy. ‘River Euphrates’ is virtually incomprehensible, but I’m yet to hear a Pixies’ song that I like more. ‘Where Is My Mind?’ is about as close as Surfer Rosa comes to a ballad; the music’s pretty, but the lyrics are macabre. Surfer Rosa gets off to a good start too, with the memorable ‘Bone Machine’ (with a particularly memorable second verse: “………yup yup yup”) and the driving ‘Break My Body’.
Elsewhere Surfer Rosa doesn’t quite match up to the highlights, but it’s little short of essential since its best songs are so memorable and unique.
After the abrasiveness of Surfer Rosa, Doolittle is surprisingly poppy, with a cleaner production from Gil Norton. Since it’s the Pixies, Doolittle is still strange and skewed, but it’s more consistent than Surfer Rosa, even though the good second half isn’t able to measure up to the almost flawless first side. Kim Deal is all over the record with lots of smooth energetic vocal parts that counterbalance Francis’ inspired screaming, while Lovering gets a rare moment in centre stage with a crooning lead vocal in the either ultra-sincere or ultra-ironic ‘La La Love You’.
Doolittle gets off to a wonderful start with the nasty ‘Debaser’, complete with a set of ridiculous lyrics: “But I am un chien andalusia.” The next six songs maintain this high standard impeccably, with wonderfully skewed pop/rockers, the peppy mellowness of ‘Here Comes Your Man’, and the memorable ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’ with a lovely string section and a unforgettable bridge. The second half drags a little, but Doolittle ends strongly with the country flavoured Deal fronted ‘Silver’ and ‘Gouge Away’, a song that Kurt Cobain claims inspired much of Nirvana’s output.
While Doolittle isn’t quite a flawless masterpiece, the Pixies’ zaniness is endearing as ever, but contrary to popular opinion, their best album was still to come.
Bossanova is the weakest of the Pixies’ original run of albums – it’s solid, but it’s not as engaging as their others. There are some new influences; songs about aliens, and surf rock guitar are two new facets. Kim Deal’s participation is also dialled back – she doesn’t contribute any songs and there’s nary an audible backing vocal anywhere. Often Bossanova just sounds like a watered down version of the previous record, with some of the quieter songs failing to register (‘Ana’) and other songs using noise to compensate for a lack of ideas (‘Rock Music’).
While it’s arguably the most diluted Pixies album, Bossanova still has its moments that less charismatic bands would cherish. The off-kilter chorus of ‘Is She Weird’, the dark blues of ‘Down To The Well’ and the jerky new wave rhythms of ‘The Happening’ are instances of unhinged brilliance, while the alien love song ‘Velouria’ and the catchy ‘Dig For Fire’ are the most accomplished songs.
Only the Pixies could pull of something as off kilter yet catchy as ‘Dig For Fire’ and ‘Velouria’, which makes the more routine moments of Bossanova all the more disappointing.
Trompe Le Monde
There aren’t any individual songs on Trompe Le Monde as strong as ‘Debaser’ or ‘River Euphrates’, but Trompe Le Monde is the best Pixies album because it’s relentlessly good. The tracks all segue into each other, maintaining a fast pace, while it scrambles up the styles so that the album skitters unpredictably from simple rockers to pretty ballads. Trompe Le Monde is loud and abrasive, while Kim Deal is again pushed into the background. Deal’s virtual absence leaves room for Santiago to spray his unpredictable lead guitar parts all over the place, and he’s constantly able to invigorate the album with his catchy aggressiveness.
The solo in ‘Space (I Believe In)’ is brilliant in its laughable simplicity, while the conclusion of ‘U-Mass’ collapses under with a chaotic explosion of guitars. Like Bossanova, many of the songs are based on geeky science fiction themes; ‘Motorway’ to Roswell’ tells the story of the rumoured alien landings while ‘Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons’ describes a lunar landscape. My favourite track is the catchy, yet brain dead, ‘U-Mass’ (a salute to Francis’ old university), while the absurd lyrics are back in ‘Space (I Believe In)’, with Francis dedicating half the words to his observation that the session keyboard player (Jefrey) only spells his name with one f.
Trompe Le Monde is a great swansong for a great band.
Ten Favourite Pixies Songs
Monkey Gone To Heaven
Dig For Fire
Where Is My Mind?
Planet of Sound