Back in 1971, The Band rumbled out of rock history with a triumphant swansong during which Robbie Robertson skewered his, Rick Danko’s and Richard Manuel’s ramshackle attempt at an old standard with a shake of a the head and a grin to the interviewer: “It’s not like it used to be.” The original line-up then bowed out with The Last Waltz – one final, enduring document of their greatness. Unfortunately – maddeningly – the same can’t be said of Pixies, and 1991’sTrompe Le Monde, it transpired, was not to be their final metallic blast of glory.
As legacies go, theirs was up there with the very best. Maybe even the best; an unbroken run, five perfect albums then an acrimonious implosion – a break-up by fax, no less – leaving a body of work that even now ranks as the most enthralling, other-planetary, often visceral and abrasively beautiful that a group of disparate personalities has produced. This is Pixies as they should be remembered – one of the greatest bands that ever met through a classified ad. That was then, though, and this is now.
Such a distance modern-day Pixies lies from the glory days of Doolittle and from ‘Debaser’s opening seconds, where each band member announced themselves and stamped their influence on thousands of lives. Kim Deal leads in with her peerless bassline, the undulating guitars join – Joey Santiago’s rasping fluidity, David Lovering fires that snare-kick ignition, and then Frank Black’s throat shreds a lyric for the ages. This was Pixies at the height of their prowess, where each personality shone on a record that was absolutely the sum of its parts.
Doolittle was the central pivot of five records the band released, one a year from ’87 to ’91, before calling it a day (the world is divided into two factions – those who consider Come On, Pilgrim to be an album proper, and those who don’t). In that five years they laid the foundation for, and perfected, the much-abused, much-maligned quiet-loud-quiet dynamic that was soon ubiquitous, but Pixies were much more than just grunge-y rock shouters. Their genius was hidden behind their normality – two U-Mass college students who recruited a bass player, who in turn roped in a drummer. Almost immediately, Come On, Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa marked them apart, particularly Black’s startling imagery that was both hinted-at and laid bare – erotic and carnal, violent and impious – barked in Spanish and English. His visions took him from hell and earth to outer space and back over Doolittle, Bossanova, and Trompe Le Monde, even if each ensuing album and tour saw rifts within the band deepen and sour – particularly between Black and Deal – to the point of ruin in 1991.
A 2003 reunion brought with it a new song, ‘Bam Thwok’, written and sung by Deal (who with The Breeders had been creating a sublime output to rival that of her first band) and whetting the appetite for new material, but she was once again to exit the camp in 2013. The show however must go on, as the saying goes…for better or for worse. The Fall’s Simon Archer (no stranger to a dysfunctional band unit) stepped in briefly to fill the Deal vacuum, and Kim Shattuck followed (only to be promptly given the heave-ho), until the band eventually settled on Paz Lenchantin as full-time bassist. And so, after three new bass players, three EPs of new music, and the first new Pixies record in twenty-three years in Indy Cindy, here we are…Head Carrier.
It’s curiously appropriate, somehow, that Head Carrier’s best tracks are those where Lenchantin takes a more prominent role, verse-swapping with Black on a spirited ‘Bel Esprit’ and taking lead vocal on ‘All I Think About Now’ – the latter, bizarrely, a ‘thank-you letter’ to Kim Deal. That’s a thank you letter to the ex-bassist, co-written and sung by her third replacement to date. It’s all so wonderfully perverse that it might be the most authentic thing Pixies have done in over twenty years.
But oh, it’s not like it used to be. It’s tough to think of the newer material as anything other than an excuse to justify touring and selling merch without recrimination. Maybe it’s just easier to think of it in those terms than to consider the alternative; that Frank Black’s song writing capabilities are going into decline, or at the very least, onto a plateau of lethargy. But no, that doesn’t sit right – not considering the handful of genuinely great songs that sporadically appear on Indie Cindy and Head Carrier. Something about all of this just seems more cynical. Let’s not forget, this is the same band that released three EPs in quick succession to fans delighted to hear brand new material – fans who shelled out money to hear them as they were drip-fed – only to then gather those same EPs together and release them as the Indie Cindy album. That same album contained ‘Bagboy’, a song released as a single immediately after Kim Deal had left the band nine months previous yet contained an interloper doing a pitch-perfect emulation of her distinctive backing vocals. That’s slightly unfair to the man in question, Jeremy Dubs, granted… but come on, like. It all just seemed so…disingenuous.
Nonetheless, the seventh Pixies album (sixth if you’re one of those Come On, Pilgrim deniers) begins with promise as the title track rattles along, and ‘Classic Masher’ is a melodious enough follow-up. ‘Tenement Song’s chorus grabs you along for the rousing journey, but ‘Baal’s Back’ is a less enamouring rout. Black howls for all he’s worth – enough to almost mask the fact that there’s not much else to it. As the opening guitar riff to ‘Might As Well Be Gone’ peals into the stratosphere, there’s suddenly an intrigue:”Where is this one going?” It’s going nowhere but to the same purgatory as much of Head Carrier. As with Indie Cindy, there’s enough here for a decent EP; a couple of standout tracks, but nothing much of substance. David Lovering, once innovative, could be any skin-rattler. Joey Santiago seems similarly uninspired, his solos less enthused than ever before. Again, Indy Cindy had a few genuine flashes of magic – from all involved – but the same can’t really be said here. Only Lenchantin seems energised through the whole thing, more assured in her position within the band. The truth is Pixies could shit out something like this once a month without rupturing a haemorrhoid. It wouldn’t even be surprising if album eight is ready to go. It’s listless, by-numbers stuff from a band capable of so much more.
Their impact can’t be overstated, and that first glut of Pixies records may well continue to floor first-time listeners…that’s assuming they can be bothered to delve into the back catalogue if their initial encounter is hearing Pixies of the 21st century. It’s time to fully accept that the band is now churning out sub-standard guitar and drum sludge with nary a backward glance to what they once were – a pioneering, massively influential band that spawned a plethora of sub-standard guitar and drum sludge. In a way you have to admire them, casting off one legacy to embark on a new incarnation for a new century, but there’s little excitement or humour to be found in this flogged warhorse that Pixies have become.