I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the way the Pixies became The Velvet Underground of Generation-X, meaning that they never sold a lot of albums during their heyday but they seemingly influenced damn near every alternative rock band who came after them. This mini-album was originally recorded at Boston's Fort Apache Studios and featured 17 songs on what was then unofficially known as The Purple Tape, which Ivo Watts-Russell trimmed down and released on his label, 4AD, best known for their ethereal pop. Many of the nine songs that didn't make Come On Pilgrim would appear in reworked form on their other albums, and the original versions of these songs were belatedly released by Sonic Unyon records as Pixies in 2002. Anyway, as for the eight songs that are here, they pretty much show off the band's strengths right from the get-go, even if there are few top-tier Pixies classics here. By that I mean that group leader Black Francis (later Frank Black and really Charles Thompson) already had his dramatic whisper to a scream vocal delivery down pat, and the band at times (but not all the time) deliver the soft-to-loud dynamics and exciting buildups/explosions that they'd become best known for. The background vocals of bassist Kim Deal (then known as Mrs. John Murphy) sometimes offer a sexy yet girlish counterpoint, but not as often or as effectively as on subsequent albums, where the band's impeccable vocal chemistry became one of their most inviting characteristics. As for the rest of the band, certainly David Lovering shows himself to be a first-class rock drummer on the brief but hard charging "Isla de Encanta," and lead guitarist Joey Santiago delivers crazed, utterly unique guitar runs to "Vamos" (yes there's something of a Spanish flavor to the album). His strange, surf-y guitar playing on "Nimrod's Son" also may not be something that you'd ever find in a textbook, but it sure is interesting even if his playing (and the band's sound in general) can be something of an acquired taste. "Ed Is Dead" is more straightforward and is deceptively catchy, as is "I've Been Tired," which features none-too-subtle lyrics, a rarity for a band better known for their obtuse, surreal, humorous, and (let's face it) often nonsensical subject matter. Then again, it's the Pixies unique chemistry and strangely compelling sound that always made them special, plus they also had a gifted songwriter (two actually, but more on that later) in Francis, who wrote the vast majority of the band's material. The best songs here are the most melodic and memorable ones: "Caribou," which features those soft-to-loud dynamics and has a catchy one word chorus, "Holiday Song," with its good groovy riffs, and "Levitate Me," with its hooky guitar lines and singable vocals. Anyway, this consistently strong first set, which at the time was only available in the U.S. as an import (the band was always much bigger in the U.K./Europe than in the U.S.), got the band off to a rock solid start and is definitely recommendable, but they would go on to even better things.
Surfer Rosa (4AD/Rough Trade ’88) Rating: A-
The Pixies first full-length album was also an import-only affair back then (small wonder that the band was much bigger overseas!), but it still caused quite a stir among the indie community as its noisy, abrasive guitar assault, when combined with a keen melodic sense, made it uniquely different from anything that had preceded it. Come to think of it, it doesn't sound like any other Pixies album, either, and for that much of the credit belongs to recording engineer (he hates the term "producer") Steve Albini, who would later be hired by Nirvana for In Utero primarily on the basis of their admiration for his work here. This is a raw, abrasive sonic onslaught, with a huge drum sound, yet many of these (generally very short) songs, particularly on the far superior first half, are also eminently tuneful and catchy at the same time. Francis’ vocals, which can be silly, grating, and awe-inspiringly psychotic in equal measure, are often incoherent, and what lyrics can be made out often come across as gibberish, anyway. His off center, at times effeminate vocals certainly are unique, though, and he's often joined by Kim Deal on some delicious harmonies. She gets a lead vocal too, and wouldn't you know it if "Gigantic," simply a great pop rock song, became their biggest hit to date, much to Francis' chagrin. Other highlights, again almost all of which appear on the first half of the album, are oddly catchy (dare I say it, cute) songs such as "Bone Machine," "Break My Body" (that's one hell of a groove there), and "Broken Face" (all 1:30 of it). Even better is "River Euphrates," which features a lovely intermingling of voices, though Francis also screams his head off as per usual. I'm not sure if there even are actual lyrics to this song, but it sure sounds good, and so does the dreamy, melodic "Where Is My Mind," the album's most memorable song which joins "Gigantic" as Surfer Rosa's inarguable classics (p.s. it was later memorably used in the movie Fight Club and it ends suddenly because they ran out of tape!). Unfortunately, the rest of the album is seriously underwritten, making it somewhat less than the "masterpiece" reputation that many have accorded it (I could live without the between song snippets as well). Still, even the tossed off songs are generally entertaining even if they could've been more fully fleshed out. Aside from "Cactus," with its memorable gonzoid lyrics ("Bloody your hands on a cactus tree, Wipe it on your dress and send it to me"), "Vamos," a remake of a Come On Pilgrim track (this version is much longer though not necessarily better), and "Brick Is Red," the stellar finale that's based around a simple, melodic guitar solo, I'd be hard pressed to recall much about the rest of side two's songs, which tend to blend together in my mind. Yet I suppose it's the album's excitingly schizoid sound, especially those aggressive, razor sharp guitars, that makes Surfer Rosa a classic (albeit a minor classic) rather than its individual songs, excellent though several of those are. This album has tons of character, plain and simple, and the band's innovative use of dynamics and thriving band chemistry would greatly influence the subsequent Lollapalooza generation (BMG’s music catalog once described alternative music as “sounds like the Pixies”). That said, for all the album's undeniable strengths, the hit-or-miss songwriting ultimately leaves me with the impression of an incredibly promising young band that hadn’t yet reached their full potential.
Doolittle (4AD/Elektra ’89) Rating: A
On Doolittle the Pixies fulfilled the potential that Surfer Rosa had hinted at, with more fully developed songs that further integrated melody within a more polished, less abrasive (but still not exactly easy listening) sound that can at least partially be attributed to the influence of new producer Gil Norton. Despite the increased accessibility, the Pixies still managed to maintain their highly idiosyncratic edginess and full throttle guitar attack, and as per usual Black Francis unleashes a series of screams and yelps along the way. Fortunately, Francis varies his vocal delivery more and has better learned the value of restraint, and he is once again aided by Deal’s perfectly charming backing vocals, which are more prominent than previously. So are the surf guitar bits, while the band's pure pop harmonies recall classic girl group combos, as their jarring, much-copied soft-to-loud volume shifts become even more pronounced (Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins would later take this aspect to another level). Deal (whose bass takes the lead on several songs such as "Tame" and "I Bleed") and Lovering (who croons the laid back "La La Love You," which provides a nice change of pace) remain a powerful rhythm section and the rock solid foundation for everything the band does, and Doolittle is bursting with exceptional songs and performances. The best of these are probably “Debaser” (never has a song about slicing eyeballs been so much fun!), “Wave Of Mutilation” (simply an enjoyably tuneful pop song) “Here Comes Your Man” (love those surf guitars and girl group vocals; how was this not a big hit?), “Monkey Gone To Heaven” (utterly brilliant, its "and the devil is six and God is seven!" part is the single greatest Pixies moment for sure), and "Gouge Away" (the most dramatic example of the band's calm before the storm dynamics). The album still isn't perfect, as some of the songs again seem underwritten and the band seems too willfully weird and eccentric for their own good at times. Still, overall Francis' songwriting is much more mature and consistent here than on prior releases, and most of the so-called "album tracks" are thoroughly enjoyable, making Doolittle the band’s best album by a wide margin. It sold well too, perhaps in part due to the major label muscle provided by Elektra Records. Now not only was the band "big in Europe," they were also firm college radio favorites in the U.S. (it helped that the album was available here as a non-import). Note: 1990 saw the release of Pod from Kim Deal's side project The Breeders (also in the band was Tanya Donnelly, previously of Throwing Muses with whom the band had toured Europe in 1988, and later of the underrated Belly), which caused some friction within the bands ranks, particularly with Black Francis.
Bossanova (4AD/Elektra ’90) Rating: A-
This amazingly fresh and original band continued to follow their own creative muse on Bossanova. Whereas Surfer Rosa’s noisy catharsis was undercut by elements of melodic pop and Doolitte was a dazzling synthesis of the best of everything that the band has to offer, Bossanova largely reverses Surfer Rosa by undercutting creamy pop marvels with intermittent bursts of sonic fury and high-strung vocals. Though the blitzkreig instrumental “Cecilia Ana” (a cover of an old surf song) and the raging screamfest “Rock Music” exhibit the edgy adventurousness that first made college radio stations take notice, most of Bossanova accentuates the band’s brilliantly melodic pop side on first rate songs such as “Velouria,” “All Over The World,” “Dig For Fire,” “The Happening,” “Stormy Weather,” and "Havalina." The band can still be agreeably twisted ("Is She Weird," for example), but by and large Bossanova was a further refinement of the band’s sound rather than an album that broke any new ground. This development disappointed some fans who railed at the album's cleaner, more polished sound, and Bossanova is a bit too airbrushed and easy listening at times while falling short of previous energy levels. Part of the problem was that this rather rushed album was basically written in the studio whereas previous albums were written beforehand and the band was better rehearsed as a result. Personally, I like that this album showed another side to the band, as Bossanova features more surf guitar from the ever-innovative Santiago (check out his "check me out" guitar hero moves on "All Over The World," at 5:27 about as epic as the ultra-concise Pixies ever got, and "Blown Away"), and it has a warmer, more subdued, dreamier overall sound that rubs off some of the band's rough edges, perhaps in a bid for a wider audience. This didn't happen, as Bossanova actually sold less well than Doolittle, which has overshadowed it ever since. Not that Doolittle isn't the better album, but I actually think that Bossanova is the band's most underrated album, and though it disappointed some of the more hardcore alt-rock snobs among their following, those who saw the Pixies as a weird pop band were more likely to approve. One definite negative to this album is that there's far less Kim Deal on backing vocals (perhaps as punishment for Pod?), and I miss their perfectly intermeshing voices, but Francis' strong if not quite consistent songwriting and oddly engaging science fictional lyrics still made for another impressive outing.
Trompe Le Monde (4AD/Elektra ’91) Rating: A-
How ironic that the Pixies swan song came right as Nevermind began its inexorable ascendance into the mainstream. Kurt Cobain always spoke glowingly of his admiration for this band, which clearly influenced Nirvana’s soft-to-loud dynamics, though the bands otherwise didn't sound very much alike. In fact, like The Velvet Underground, though many artists emulated aspects of their trademark sound, nobody truly sounded like the Pixies, which was a tribute to their uniqueness. Anyway, though like Bossanova it failed to elevate the band into the big leagues, Trompe Le Monde is likewise an underrated goodbye that along with its predecessor are the darkhorse releases in the band’s brief but enduring career. Like Bossanova, this album was rushed and was largely written in the studio, and several older songs were also resurrected. Unfortunately, the album featured minimal contributions from a then largely estranged Deal, while ex Captain Beefheart/Pere Ubu member Eric Drew Feldman plays keyboards and synthesizers, and Norton again produces for the third album in a row. Fittingly, on the whole this album is much heavier and grungier than Bossanova, showcasing the group’s unique ability to be bone crunchingly heavy and irresistibly poppy at the same time, all while managing to not have a single obvious radio track on it. As such, this album is a grower, but patience will reward listeners, as there is something unique going on in every one of these songs, starting with the ringing guitars and exciting drum-fueled surges of the title track. Again, it's tough to tout individual highlights, but the futuristic, full bore rocker "Planet Of Sound" (which sounds like the template for many a later Foo Fighters track), the lighter, melodic “Alec Eiffel,” with its atmospheric Feldman-enhanced extended fadeout replete with choral vocals, the hooky “Head On,” a Jesus and Mary Chain cover and in my opinion an improvement on the original, the big churning riffs and Francis' ironic shouts on "U-Mass," the buzzsaw riffs and singable mid-tempo melody of "Letter To Memphis," and the melodic, epic (a whopping 4:46!), quite moving "Motorway To Roswell" are the songs that immediately sprang to my mind. The album isn't without its problems, as (as per usual) some of the songs seem underdeveloped (quite a few of these fifteen songs clock around or under 2 minutes), Deal's perfectly cute, sexy backing vocals are missed, and the album on the whole sounds more like a Frank Black solo album than a proper Pixies album. But it wouldn't be the Pixies if this album wasn't flawed, and the band's frustrating oddball tendencies and schizophrenic nature is also part of what makes them so entertaining. For example, “Space (I Believe In)” is metallic, thrashy, and extremely catchy, all at different times, and "The Sad Punk" is really two songs in one, the first a fast-paced screamfest, the second (better half) much slower and more melodic (though Francis still screams at times). Elsewhere, plain, undistinguished verses briefly give way to melodic, singable choruses on "Palace Of The Brine" and "Bird Dream Of The Olympus Mons," while Santiago's surf guitar steps to the fore on "The Navajo Know," a low-key finale to a decidedly disjointed but always interesting album. Alas, after an unfulfilling tour opening for U2, Francis rather infamously (and coldheartedly) broke the band up via fax. Theories abound as to the nature of the band's breakup, but most agree that it was the friction between Francis and Deal (arguably the original cool alternative rock chick) that caused the breakup. She had become too popular within his band, she felt restricted being merely the bass player in his band, she had substance abuse issues and lacked his work ethic; these are some of the reasons cited, but the bottom line is that they simply grew apart and could no longer work together. Frank Black went onto a prolific solo career and Deal, a talented songwriter in her own right, turned her focus full time to The Breeders, who actually had the hit single that had always eluded the Pixies when their superb "Cannonball" cracked the U.S. top 40 in 1993.
Wave of Mutilation: Best of Pixies (4AD/Elektra ‘04) Rating: A
Post-breakup, there has been a fair amount of reissue and archive releases, including Death to the Pixies (1997), a 17-track "best of," as well as Pixies At The BBC (1998) and Complete B-Sides (2001), both of which are worthwhile but are aimed at the hardcore Pixies fan. For the uninitiated or for those who simply want to hear the very best songs that the Pixies have to offer, 2004's 23-track Wave of Mutilation: Best of Pixies is the way to go since it has replaced the now out of print Death to the Pixies. In some ways the first compilation was superior, since its scattershot sequencing (with a few exceptions, this one is sequenced more or less chronologically) made it seem more like a proper Pixies album. You see, all Pixies albums have their own flavor, imperfect and disjointed though they may be (Francis himself felt that they recorded too many albums in too short a period of time), so it made sense to just throw all the songs in a pot and let the chips fall where they may. Also, Death to the Pixies was remastered whereas this one is not for some reason (though it is “volume-adjusted” whatever that means), plus limited editions of Death to the Pixies contained a second disc featuring an exciting live performance from 1990. Still, the unimaginative sequencing here doesn't really impair my enjoyment of listening to these songs, and this "best of" is more comprehensive than its predecessor and is completely entertaining. There's something to be said for hearing the band's best songs without the filler present on all the band's albums (yes, even Doolittle), and there are precious few truly essential Pixies tracks missing; from Come On Pilgrim I would've included "Levitate Me" rather than "Nimrod's Son," from Surfer Rosa I would've included "River Euphrates" rather than "Vamos," Doolittle is pretty much perfectly represented by its best seven songs (the five ones previously singled out as highlights plus “Tame” and “Hey”), Bossanova has the two most obvious tracks ("Velouria" and "Dig For Fire") but I really would've liked to have seen "The Happening" rather than "Allison" and maybe others such as "All Over The World" and “Rock On” as well, and Trompe Le Monde likewise should've had more than three tracks, though only "Motorway To Roswell" is a major omission and that album really lacks obvious highlights so is probably best listened to on its own, anyway. Also included are a couple of tracks from the b-sides compilation that weren't present on Death To The Pixies (“Into The White” was a b-side for a reason but their version of Neil Young’s “Winterlong” is excellent), so even though this compilation isn't perfect, on the whole it does a good job of showcasing the band at their very best. Shockingly, the year that this album was released the Pixies did the previously unthinkable (given their bad breakup) and regrouped for what proved to be a spectacularly successful reunion tour. In addition to (presumably) making a whole lot of money for everyone involved, the tour served to heal old wounds, and the band got to bask in the unbridled adulation that had previously eluded them, at least in the United States; this was no longer the case as they were now belatedly much bigger than they had ever been in the past. It's not surprising I suppose that the band was so well received, as their incredible inter-band chemistry had returned totally intact, and as such they were still able to play Black Francis' timeless songs exceedingly well. This was one "comeback tour" where everybody won, and once again the Pixies set the trend as many other long dormant "seminal" alternative rock bands noted their success and also decided to give it one more go.
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