Monday, January 31, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 92: The Pixies

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

On a lengthy winter roadtrip last year, I picked up a handful of CDs from the local library. One of these was the Pixies' Surfer Rosa, which the library had thoughtfully taken a black marker to in order to prevent me from seeing the breasts on the cover. I even remember the exact day I first listened to it, because it was January 1st, 2010. 

I remember putting Surfer Rosa in and absolutely hating it. I'm not sure if it was the hangover, the mid-afternoon hypnosis that strikes on long trips, or that, for some intangible reason, I just wasn't in the mood. But the alternating tempos and dynamics started to grate on me. The cryptic lyrics quickly became annoying. The soft whispers made the hairs on my neck stand on end, and the loud no-holds-bar rock made me tense and agitated. I made it through the album, then promptly threw it in the back seat, buried it under some dirty clothes, and returned it as soon as I was home. 

388 days later, I decided to give the Pixies another shot. And while I'm not going to be getting a Pixies tattoo anytime soon, I'm pleased to find that my initial reaction was not altogether accurate. I liked Doolittle and Bossanova, and even as I look over the track list to Surfer Rosa, I can say that I enjoy more songs on the album than I dislike. Listening to the album now, I'm not sure what inspired such an enraged reaction last January. 

It's strange how sometimes art clicks for us at a certain point in our lives. Music I used to find unimpressive now captivates me, while some of the stuff that used to blow me away doesn't inspire much in me now. On the one hand, I'm not very inclined to keep subjecting myself to stuff I don't like, in a desperate attempt to "get it." But on the other hand, sometimes it's worth it to revisit an old foe and see if it was really that bad, or if it was just a bad day. 



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Besides my ill-fated attempt at Surfer Rosa, I'd been exposed to many of the Pixies' bigger hits through various pop culture channels. The use of "Where Is My Mind?" in Fight Club and "Here Comes Your Man" in 500 Days of Summer are just two that I can think of off the top of my head. 

MY LISTENING: I listened to Doolittle (1989) every day this week. I also listened to Surfer Rosa (1988) four times, Bossanova (1990) three times, and Trompe Le Monde (1991) twice. And, as I write this, I have Pixies at the BBC (1998) on in the background because, what the hell, the library had this one too. 

WHAT I LIKED: I definitely the Pixies' lighter, poppier songs, which meant that I preferred Doolittle and Bossanova over the other two albums. Doolittle in particular grew on me; I found the raucous abandon of the opening "Debaser" a little off-putting at the beginning of the week, but now it's one of my favorite songs on the album. The melodic guitars and backing vocals supporting Black Francis' crazed singing is something that the Pixies do very well. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Doolittle also has "Here Comes Your Man," one of the few Pixies songs that doesn't hide their knack for a good melody behind a bunch of noise. 

But Bossnova is what really clicked with me, where the Pixies take surf rock and give it a proto-grunge spin. Instrumentals like "Cecilia Ann" are awesome, "Ana" takes it a little slower than the band usually goes, and "Allison" showcases the band's ability to pack a lot of ideas into a short song. But "Velouria" is Bossanova's best song, and a good example of the band taking their often superfluous energy and applying it well to the song. "Velouria" (and Bossanova as a whole) feel like they have direction, a method to the madness. I suppose that some people prefer their Pixies to be manic, but I liked this side of the band more.

Finally, Surfer Rosa is certainly memorable, even though I wasn't completely on board. "River Euphrates" was stuck in my head all day today, and "Where Is My Mind?" is the catchiest song the band's ever done. 


"Bone Machine," the first track on Surfer Rosa, sums up a lot of what I don't really like about the Pixies - the vocals are drenched in fuzz so you can hardly hear them, the melody lurches to a halt at random moments, Black Francis screams rather than singing, and the entire song is just muddled enough to come across as abrasive. 

The hell of it is that I'm pretty sure there's a good song buried underneath all of this, but many Pixies songs insist on hiding their songcraft behind a lot of directionless screaming and instrumental riffs that go in circles. "Oh My Golly" sounds like it was recorded with the microphones in another room, and "Vamos" kicks up the energy only to run in place. 

The later Pixies album contain a few missteps like the tracks on Surfer Rosa - "Crackity Jones" on Doolittle, and "Rock Music" on Bossanova, but the band seems to exchanged their adolescent noise for a bigger focus on melody, and I appreciate that. (Replacing their producer appears to have had something to do with it as well). 

Trompe le Monde made very little impression on me, except that "The Sad Punk" was certainly annoying. 

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: The only place to go is way back in the past to their Come On Pilgrim EP (1987), and I don't think I need to do that. There's some Black Francis solo stuff, but I don't think I need to do that either. I'm glad I made my peace with the Pixies, but I don't think I'll be returning to go through the lesser known stuff.


As much as the loud-soft start-stop thing got on my nerves sometimes, this song is pretty great.

BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "Wave of Mutilation"

This song makes me want to drive into the ocean. 

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: Tangerine Dream

POSTSCRIPT: As I finish this, I'm still listening to Pixies at the BBC. The version of "Ana" here is soft and chilling and beautiful, and "Wave of Mutilation" is wonderfully restrained. Why oh why couldn't the band tone it down like this more often?