|Gets at the tone pretty cleanly...|
The first song I heard by The Pixies was “Debaser.” This makes linear sense in that someone dropped the needle on Doolittle, and that was the first song, so…
It was love at first listen. I was just…18 (? - look, I’m shit with linear time), I knew nothing, and still know nothing about Luis Bunuel, I don’t know what Un Chien Andalou is accept a corrupted lyric (I think The Pixies phrase it “Chien Andalousia,”), but the hyper-drive drumming and thudding bass with that soaring guitar hook playing over it hooked me right away. I went on to listen to the rest of Doolittle – probably several times over the next week – to figure out what it was about it that hit so cleanly. Later, I went back to Come on Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa, the first an EP, the second a full album (maybe?). Back when that sort of thing happened.
The Pixies made for a fantastic companion for life after high school. They covered all the big ones - sex, art, relationships (or, rather, artistic sex, creative violence, and fraught relationships) – and with the right portions of ambiguity and a sort of saucy, disarming humor. Better still, they droned those puzzling lyrics over actually superb compositions. On top of that, they added sneaky-clever little chop-cuts (see, the adorably relatable lead in to “I’m Amazed” and the goofing around before Surfer Rosa’s “Vamos,” which, tragically, doesn't make YouTube's video) that sounded enough like stuff you did with your friends. It hardly hurt that, at that time, just about everyone in the places where I lived either were in bands or wanted to be. (Related: If I can figure out a way to explain/do justice to Pullman, Washington’s tidy little rock scene, I will.)
“Debaser” gets at the way The Pixies leaned into “art” concepts, but without getting too far from traditional rock/pop approach and structure; I think the word/backhanded compliment for that was “accessible” back then. Their sound lurked on the “poppier” edges of the college rock scene – which may or may not have been what people called the genre back before people started using the grab-bag vague term “alternative rock”; forgive the faulty memory – which made it stand out from the heavier stuff breaking through around the same time (think grunge, which would soon swallow too much), but without being music that everyone could tolerate or listen to. Against a subculture on persistent high alert against selling out, that mattered too. Even if it shouldn’t have.
At any rate, I loved The Pixies. Between the original LPs and lacing songs from all of them into a half dozen mixed tapes, I played those first three albums until the thought of them made me sick. Right around the time I was losing interest in the band, someone told me they had a new release coming out, a full LP called Bossanova. I don’t remember what I felt on hearing that news, but I remember one thing about Bossanova very distinctly: a close friend of mine picked it up, a guy with a genuine Pixies fixation, so I asked him what he thought of it. His judgment contained all of three words: “it’s kinda boring.”
And that was all it took, which is ridiculous in retrospect. Sick as I was of the first three albums, I basically stopped listening to The Pixies. Yes, this is hardly a revelation, but things were different back then; my friend lived in another city, so I couldn’t just borrow Bossanova for a test spin, and every time we got together, other new stuff just felt more urgent. This predated the Great Musical Ripoff that was Napster, never mind the insane era of ultimate access we’re all currently living via Spotify and whatever the fuck it is Apple calls its music thingy now (Apple Music, right?), so, in some circumstances, hearing a new album meant leaving the house, going to a record store, laying down cash for an album I wasn’t even sure I wanted, and so on. And this with all the new, more urgent stuff in the background, too.
Another thing I remember: how I reconnected with The Pixies. A friend of mine – this is now in another city, Boston – really loved this movie called Kicking and Screaming. (The Noah Baumbach joint, not the Will Ferrell vehicle, and I can heartily recommend that to anyone who graduated from college without knowing what the fuck to do next, but I digress.) The movie’s opening scene features a guy walking through a graduation party with The Pixies “Cecilia Ann” playing in the background. Because The Pixies sound like The Pixies, I knew the band immediately. And that’s a great song, so when you see Death to The Pixies a couple years after that, you pick it up. Later you pick up Bossanova and the later, and last of its era, Trompe le Monde. I have yet to pick up their newer stuff…maybe it’s because Kim Deal left.
Kidding. It’s mostly a bandwidth thing.
There aren’t a lot of bands I connected quite like The Pixies, enough that I can’t believe they didn’t leave a bigger pop, or at least “alt-culture” footprint, than they have. They don’t seem to enjoy the same regard as a lot of bands and that fucking baffles me, because they’re better, and more artistically varied, than a lot bands that lived. I once heard someone say that all good people like Creedence Clearwater Revival, and I think the same thing applies to The Pixies. And so, as with anything you’re excited about, or that had meaning, The Pixies are one of those things I’d love to see live on. I feel like more people remember Wilson Phillips “Hold On” better and…well, that’s just unacceptable (as in, no video/link unacceptable).
So, if I had to explain The Pixies to a Martian, what would I tell her? (Six arms, dude. Six!) One thing I’d note is their talent for slipping pop rock gems (typically with sly lyrics) into most of those five albums: “Gigantic” on Surfer Rosa, “Here Comes Your Man” (so much irony in this video) and “La Love You” (1st base, 2nd base, home run...) on Doolittle and “U-Mass” on Trompe le Monde. Those songs stand out for their lighter tone and touch, because The Pixies tended toward the darker and more exotic. At 18, or even 21, “exotic” didn’t take much more than singing in Spanish. I always loved “Vamos” (both versions), but only “Isla de Encanta” enjoys the honor of making the floor of UP’s Chiles Center churn like it was boiling. (Trust me; all the audio from Surfer Rosa is muted.)
The extent to which those songs were atypical pulls things closer to the meat of The Pixies’ oeuvre. They can play a lot of moods – comic (“I’ve Been Tired”), twisted (“Cactus”), comically/twisted (“Broken Face”), semi-mystical (“Dig for Fire”), quietly desperate (“Hey”), and contemplative and quietly still (“This Monkey’s Gone to Heaven” – of which, just picked up the “bells” sound the last time I listened). The themes are/were often dark or just beyond comfort, but the tone often felt somehow felt either ironic or removed, either due to the musical arrangement – e.g. a song like “Broken Face” that’s just…weird, but that manages to come off as, at most, darkly comic – or “Nimrod’s Son,” which makes light of difficult people and bad decisions. Maybe. Most things are contingent with The Pixies and that’s probably a big part of why I like them. They can do straight heavy/dark – see “Dead” (Doolittle; also, a personal long-time favorite) – but that doesn’t feel like their jam. Even the rage in “Something Against You” comes off a little like a joke.
I’ve spent the past few days trying to come up with the “Pixiest” of all The Pixies songs and/or albums. After much thought and deliberation, I’m going with “Is She Weird” (Bossanova) for the song, but with Surfer Rosa for the album. The song fits for thematic reasons, but also for the mid-range tempo, because The Pixies play fast or slow per the dictates of entirely reasonable judgments. The case for Surfer Rosa is more complicated, though, because, 1) it came pretty early in the band’s body of work, but 2) it sounds like a band that knows what it’s about, but at the point of defining their own sound, as opposed to continuing to play within it. Of all The Pixies albums, Trompe le Monde feels most like the one played from within an artistic prison.
Doesn’t matter what I think in the end. The Pixies’ work is out there and, as I see it, it’s absolutely amazing. When I pick the “Pixiest” of their sound, what I’m trying to signal is that, if you don’t like Surfer Rosa, there’s very little chance that you’ll like the rest of it. And that’s not a bad thing, to each his/her own, etc.
But, yeah, I do think you’re missing out.