A lot of critics have been very, well, critical of the Pixies comeback record. But maybe they should just chill out a bit. It’s not all that bad.
I have for some time considered the Pixies to be one of the top five bands of all time – along with, maybe, seven or eight others (!) – so I was very excited about their return as a recording unit over the summer, after a very lengthy layoff. The Boston quartet initially made a surprise comeback with the release of an abrasive single called ‘Bagboy’ on 28 June, as a free download from their website, but they shocked us all again by ‘dropping’ an EP of four songs, simply titled EP1, on 2 September (as a download or as an expensive, limited-edition, ten-inch record). One of the songs, ‘Indie Cindy’, got heavy rotation on 6Music, while the band have since performed the EP live, alongside their classic material, at a well-received showing at the iTunes Festival, at a 6Music session hosted by a very excitable Steve Lamacq, and on a number of TV programmes including ‘Later’, with a very excitable Jools Holland, ahead of a handful of UK dates in November, mainly in places not called Birmingham (thanks guys). However, many music critics, notably one miserable sod on the influential ‘Pitchfork’ website, have been very quick to dismiss the EP as substandard. I, on the other hand, have preferred to spend an extended amount of time properly absorbing it before offering my obviously more considered assessment (though another reason for the delay would be that I am just not that quick at writing these things!).
Anticipation over any new Pixies material is, naturally enough, very high, for the simple reason that the last time the band released an album was as long ago as 1991, a time of George Bush Sr, ‘Stormin’ Norman’ and a positively youthful Saddam Hussein, and when I was a fresher at a West London college with an ear for, of all things, Dire Straits’ latest album – On Every Street (yes, I was old before my time). This was ahead of their acrimonious split in 1993 and the subsequent release of a one-off song, ‘Bam Thwock’, to accompany a reunion tour in 2004, as well as a cover, ‘Ain’t That Pretty At All’, for a Warren Zevon tribute album, which it is hard to get terribly excited over. And yet, the circumstances surrounding the release of some relatively substantial new Pixies material this year have been far from auspicious. By this, I speak of the departure from the band of founder-member Kim Deal, her exit having in fact preceded the release of ‘Bagboy’, though you’d be forgiven for not noticing, due to the ridiculously Deal-like backing vocals on that track (a dirty trick!). Her decision to leave was a major disappointment to all right-minded Pixies fans as she had always been a vital and hugely charismatic presence within the band, with her distinctive rolling bass lines and pleasingly sardonic (and massively underused) vocals that perfectly offset Black Francis’ ranting and a-raving.
If we are to believe the rumours, Deal left the Pixies, while they were recording new material earlier this year in Wales (yes, Wales), because she didn’t think the songs they were working on were up to scratch, preferring, it seems, to concentrate solely on live duties and not mess with the recorded legacy. And herein lies the essential problem for the band, because since their initial split in ’93, their global reputation has soared to gargantuan proportions, as more and more people have been turned on to the sheer audacity and demonic brilliance of their songs, helped along the way by a certain Seattle-based rock star (now dead), who by his own admission pilfered their innovative quiet-loud-quiet (or is that loud-quiet-loud?) template. A measure of the band’s legacy occurred to me when I visited Tesco recently in my Pixies Doolittle T-shirt, as it was here, while I struggled to fill my recycled shopping bag with the usual Heinz Barbecue Beanz, Ragu pasta sauce and size-5 nappies, that a very excited youth on the checkout, no more than 19 years of age, proceeded to rave on at me about the merits of ‘Debaser’ and ‘Wave of Mutilation’, and the “excellent screaming” on ‘Tame’. So, indeed, when a band continues to reign as one of the most influential alternative rock bands ever, how do you even attempt to follow up such mind-blowing songs as ‘Gigantic’, ‘Bone Machine’, ‘UMass.’, ‘Where is My Mind?’, and, of course, the Velvet Undergound-inspired ‘Here Comes Your Man’?
But, facing up to Deal’s absence from the band and the obvious weight of expectation placed upon them, we must at least try to give the new Pixies line-up a fair hearing on EP1, judging the record on its own merits. The band on show here consists of Black Francis, Joey Santiago and David Lovering, together with a chap called Simon ‘Dingo’ Archer on the bass guitar (who has worked with The Fall and PJ Harvey) and a familiar name from past glories, Gil Norton, in the producer’s chair. And, in truth, I think the record they have come up with has been worth the effort, if not the wait. Opener ‘Andro Queen’ is an ethereal and airy affair in which the protagonist has a love affair with a girl from the Andromeda galaxy, putting me in mind, perhaps wrongly, of Captain James T. Kirk’s numerous interstellar relationships with female aliens, who were most often (as I recall) orange. The vocals, meanwhile, are very much a case of “it’s Black Francis, Jim, but not as we know him”, as they are so soaked in reverb. The singer also speaks the bridge of the song in Esperanto, which is a definite talking point, I think!
Second track, ‘Another Toe in the Ocean’, offers up some upbeat and melodic surfer pop, whose distinct lack of menace and rather generic nature undoubtedly annoys a lot of hardcore fans. But ‘Indie Cindy’ is easily the highpoint of the EP, which does deploy the classic Pixies sound of angry and malevolent spoken-word verses combined with a softly melodic and sweetly-sung chorus. The song appears to address the idea of the band trying to find their audience again after a very long absence, but not in what you would call an obvious way, as Mr Francis proceeds to tell us about how his milk is curdled and how we must be careful of hot plates and putting ‘the cock in cocktail’, or something. He further states, ‘They call this dance the washed up crawl’, perhaps anticipating the criticism to come. But the song sounds absolutely thrilling, and it will go on to take pride of place on future ‘best of’s and compilations, being the clearest indicator here that the Pixies are NOT in fact dead (while detractors of the EP who refuse to even acknowledge the greatness of this track are, frankly – and let me blunt – being very, very silly indeed). Final track ‘What Goes Boom’, on the other hand, sounds a bit too much like Billy Joel’s 80s rapid-fire protest song ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ to be completely satisfying, though it does offer more in the way of “excellent screaming” and some compelling guitar noise.
And then it’s all over. But for all its brevity, the songs from EP1 certainly add extra piquancy to the Pixies’ current live repertoire, which was very much the main point of the exercise. Evidence of this was provided in spades on ‘Later’ back in September, with a performance that showcased the skills of new bassist Kim Shattuck (of the Muffs) to fine effect. I must admit, though, to being slightly disappointed at Black Francis’ decision to take part in the show’s obligatory awkward interview and look-back-at-old-footage section, particularly with Hugh Laurie From ‘House’ looking on, after the actor had just finished indulging in some obligatory boogie-woogie piano playing with the host, where they of course had to do that thing where they both swap stools while still playing (gasp!). I have always admired rock singers/guitarists, like Black Francis, who have a certain mystique and unapproachability about them, so to see the great man looking very uncomfortable from being quizzed on his spare-time pursuits while on tour (answer: a lot of laundry) was a little depressing.
Despite my misgivings, the Pixies have shown on EP1 that, ultimately, they can survive without Kim Deal (as details concerning the reasons for her departure slowly emerge), while Kim Shattuck competently fills in on bass and backing vocals for the live shows. They have further shown that they are well-placed to deliver more ambitious records over the coming months, particularly after announcing that the next downloadable EP will be ‘punkier’. All in all, things seem to be progressing well for a band that has been out of the picture for the best part of 20 years. Oh, hang on though, Kim Shattuck has now just left the band. Or been fired. There’s another spanner in the works then!