Chapter 1: What are Pixies?
Mom, what’s a Pixie? Well, son, ya see, it’s a member of the best da** band on the planet in the late ’80s, about one-tenth as preachy and ham-handed as R.E.M. and one-twentieth as overlong as U2, with every bit the songwriting moxie of each.
And, I mean, they started at a place called Fort Apache Studios. Are we gonna split hairs here? Little Rider, quick, attack with that guitar lick! Faces His Eyes to the Sun, quick, hit the cymbal!
So out of the bloodletting ranks of Fort Apache Studios was borne Come on Pilgrim, a near-perfect 20-minute album of what more so than any other document extant would provide New England’s primary contribution to the East Coast trifecta of indie rock’s first big initial launch. This trifecta is completed, of course, by Sonic Youth, representing New York, and Yo La Tengo doing justice by New Jersey, with Washington, D.C. implicitly held as a key contributor, as well.
Right away, anyway, the Pixies seemed like the funniest out of the three. The first track on their first album, then, “Caribou,” is certainly no negater of this concept, with singer Black Francis professing his desire for reverse-anthropomorphism into a rustic mammal. I’m guessing that’s what that, uh, interesting album cover is all about. Later on in their discography we’d get any litany of hilarity, particularly on Doolittle, which, amidst all of the verbose discourse that seemed completely subsumed in irony and sarcasm, also featured “Crackity Jones,” a faux-love song to this dude down in Puerto Rico who would invade Francis’ home every day .
Unlike Sonic Youth, too, the Pixies didn’t need maniacal noise elements and overblown feminist theatrics to make their impression. Right away, it was about good, classic songs, like “Caribou”; “Nimrod’s Son” and “Vamos”; all of which, mind you, while being instantly enjoyable and hummable, are also each not only distinct but, uh, just WEIRD, like as in the “Keep Austin Weird” bumper stickers, et. al. You simply can’t find a simplistic or traditional lyrical in any of their songs, or so it seems, at least in the early days. On their last album, Trompe le Monde (1991), there’s this song “Letter to Memphis” which I think finally, though pretty musically commendable, veers slightly toward the conventional, or hackneyed, in lyrics. Probably not coincidentally, then, immediately following this project, the band would break off and decide to take a pause of over 10 years, to then eventually emerge with a different lineup. Being ordinary just wasn’t in their stars from the start. This stands them in stark contrast to bands of today, of course, who seem to be on like an electric-doggie-collar-circuit to the woman allotted them by Big Brother, more or less.
Chapter 2: Hashing out the Functional Chasm in the Pixies Biography That is Steve Albini
Steve Albini kind of exists right in the middle of the Pixies’ history somewhat like the Bermuda Triangle. There’s essentially no discussion on the Wikipedia article for Doolittle, the album directly following his production pile of Surfer Rosa, of his input there. The article just mentions that the band were looking for a producer for Doolittle, no explication of what problems may have arisen with Albini listed anywhere. Surfer Rosa is considered by the article as “highly regarded” but not “critically acclaimed,” “adored by fans” or any other, more vital or lively epithet such as that. It’s no-man’s land, essentially.
Just to balloon out a little bit here, Steve Albini is a singer/guitarist/producer originally from Montana but based in Chicago for his music career, pretty much, once a student at Northwestern. Concurrent with the Pixies’ heydays, Albini fronted the jolting, abrasive post-punk band Big Black, which found a home on Chicago’s own Touch and Go Records. Soon after, he got into producing, obstinately insisting that he doesn’t “produce” albums, but rather “record” them.
And does he ever — in fact he’s notorious for putting like 30 microphones around the drums and creating this aural environment that spawns a sort of drum monsoon, typically rendering every other instrument pretty much null and void. He’s exhibited this ham-handed technique, as far as I know, for every band he’s ever recorded, including Nirvana, which of course had arguably the best songwriter of the ’90s and who released an elite unplugged album (hence debilitating the importance of apocalyptic drums, theoretically), and The Breeders, which, like the Pixies and Nirvana, used him for one album and never went back to him. In the case of the Pixies and The Breeders, at least, they recorded what was undeniably the best work of their careers in the days immediately following his cessation of production duties for them.
Surfer Rosa is one of the most bizarre LP’s in the history of mankind, right down to those horribly awkward between-song skits toward the end. To make matters even more uncomfortable, Albini has been public in his blatant criticism of the band and that album (I think in some interview he referred to it as something like a “patchwork pinch-loaf,” illustrating his impressive Chicago frat-boy vocabulary in the process). In other instances, he’s been known to make band members quite uncomfortable in and around recording environs, a la the story I read about of him making sexual comments to Dave Grohl that were supposed to be funny but instead found everyone nervously chuckling and silent thereafter.
So I don’t really know what happened with Surfer Rosa — what went down in the studio, why the put all those bizarre songs on the album like “Bone Machine”; “Broken Face” and “Brick is Red”; etc. And I don’t know why, officially, the band chose to move on from him afterward. In the overall band page, Wikipedia states that Albini “was hired… on the advice of a 4AD colleague.” For Doolittle, then, the band was again out at sea as to who would engineer the final product, weighing a couple options openly before deciding on the British Gil Norton. And maybe it’s true that it took an un-egotistical British gentleman to channel the truly ideal Pixies album, one that would grant Black Francis with the requisite songwriting and creative sovereignty to render all the projects as truly his own. Indeed, Norton’s production on Doolittle seems to take a less-is-more approach, not really standing out in any way other than its allowance of all the instruments and vocals to shine clearly and relatively unhindered.
Now, it is true that there are some good songs on Surfer Rosa, as well as some great, unbridled and hilariously direct Pixies energy (and I’m talking about “Something against You” here, in particular). There’s “Where is My Mind?”, a song so good it was chosen to soundtrack the closing credits of Fight Club. English journal Melody Maker even voted it the best album of 1988, putting it ahead of even Daydream Nation, then. But Rolling Stone has it ranked #390 on their most recent top 500, with Doolittle slotted at #141, and in my opinion, Rosa should be supplanted entirely by the chill, psychedelic beach rock of Bossanova (1990), the Pixies’ followup to their magnum opus of Doolittle. For now, anyway, I’ll just let the obvious elephant in the room that the band didn’t want to go back to Albini act as a sussing mechanism of Surfer Rosa’s importance, an impetus to move on to other topics after having touched on certain ironies and taboos surrounding the complicated figure that is Steve Albini.
Chapter 3: Doolittle as Spatially Authentic Cluster of Essential Life Experiences
Time and time again, Doolittle is the album I look to for the fullest satiation of my Pixies needs. Especially primed for the energetic, brisk goofiness of summer, it’s an LP full of crispness and an almost otherworldly element of certainty and purposefulness, even as, on opener “Debaser,” Black Francis transmits in this bizarrely exclamatory vocal tone.
Ask any two people and you’ll probably get two different “favorite songs” on the album. The reflective, melancholic and melodramatic “Hey” from side B is one I’ve heard. “Debaser” is bound to generate some selections. My roommate who turned me on to it favors “I Bleed,” which I’d slot really near the top, in particular. For me, though, it’s gotta me “Here Comes Your Man,” in all its summery beach rock perfection and expedited musical surety, transmitted effortlessly as if from some musical orb up in the sky from which all this earthly discourse and verbal mass is but an afterthought. And I’m not sure if this matters but as a Velvet Underground fan I find it kind of intriguing: I think it might be a runoff of their breakthrough tune “I’m Waiting for the Man,” about seeking the arrival of a drug dealer. Of course, the Pixies were never known to have dabbled in hard drugs, but with that great vibe of light innocence and rich melody we get on tunes like this, it would also be hard to imagine them as not fans of The VU, absolute revolutionaries and pioneers in alternative rock.
The point of this post, anyway, is supposed to be a sort of partial illustration of how all these songs on this album are semantically distinct — they each deal in their own topic, in a sense. What makes it really interesting is that, even in this, nothing seems mundane or warmed-over: all these tunes seem to unfurl lyrical sets with tirades and diatribes that are completely original, that nobody else would do. No other lead singer is likely to proclaim that “My heart is workin’ / But my blood is / DEAD!” No other would juxtapose dancing and lust so closely with a bizarre exclamation of the word “TAAAAAAME!”, which then serves to encompass the entire chorus, lyrically speaking.
I touched on “Crackity Jones” earlier, a song with this hilarious story of pertaining to this dude Black Francis knew on his exchange student trip to Puerto Rico. The guy, dubbed “Jose Jones” at the start of the actual song, would, per report, come into Francis’ home every day and just start talking, uninvited, of course prompting Francis to quip sarcastically “Please forgive me / Jose Jones / You need these walls / For your own”. “Crackity Jones” also tends to be the fastest, loudest and most frenetic of the bunch, too, making it ironic and interesting that Francis chooses to marry these anger and abrasion elements with what’s also one of the keenest swatches of humor on the entire LP.
A couple other important songs to mention, now, shall ensue. One, primarily, is “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” the tune Rolling Stone named as the album’s “essential track” in their readers’ poll best albums list of 2002. “Monkey Gone to Heaven” plays as a bad acid trip on apocalypse, envisioning a Revelations-era world where “The ground’s not cold / And if the ground’s not cold / Everything is gonna burn / We’ll all take turns / I’ll get mine too”. The simple chorus mantra of “This monkey’s gone to heaven” then plays as a ridiculously eerie denouement of the whole thing, one meant to almost laugh and chortle at the immense impending amount of devastation the human race is bound to experience at the “bitter end” of our existence, if you will. It’s ok though, because it’s followed by the twisted mockery of “Mr. Grieves.”
“Debaser,” as I hint at earlier, is a spellbinding mess of a rock song, with that hilariously weird vocal technique (like Tom Waits re-imagined as a coked-up Red-Sox-loving 16-year-old brat). Believe it or not, though, I think it’s got some grounding in reality: like in pertinence to people who have to take exception to SOMETHING about you, as a way of exercising their opinion and vocal chords. These are the “debasers” — annoying pests that crave conflict and degradation of others, that Francis sarcastically embraces in or around the song’s chorus. “I Bleed,” then, is richly metaphorical, and takes on a similar topic, probably avoiding the trap of preachiness and straight-up misanthropy just for how creative the phrasings are in the chorus and how awesomely rich the song is, in general, musically speaking. “La La Love You” is actually, then, just a plain old love song, probably thrown in there as a joke the assuage the “you never write love songs” plaint that was sure to manifest from any number of simpletons vaguely familiar with their catalogue. “Silver” is beautiful and very, very esoteric in subject matter, as is pretty much the rest of side B, giving the sense of drug use and moments of creative fertility or chaos as grafting out a significant portion of the band’s everyday life. I mean, they certainly don’t paint a very optimistic picture of tactile reality: that’s for sure.
Chapter 4: Bossanova is my Fall Pixies Album (Originally Published in 2021 as an Autonomous Post)
To me, Surfer Rosa is a null and void Pixies record, for reasons that pretty much all have to do with Steve Albini — his annoying habit of thinking putting 30 mikes around the drums is the solution to everything, those awkward skits, etc. Also, the sequencing is abysmal, and they recycled the song “Vamos” from the Pixies’ debut, Come on Pilgrim, the original version having been just fine (Green Day probably improved “Welcome to Paradise” to more of an extent, to put things in perspective).
After that caustic and almost arbitrary verdict from yours truly, then, that leaves four Pixies albums — one for each season. And come on, Doolittle just has to be the summer one, with that beach-y classic “Here Comes Your Man” manning the middle with such authority, and the fluid easiness the whole thing has of playing as a whole, even with those crazy, quirky vocals in “Debaser,” etc. I’ve got Come on Pilgrim slotted as my winter one, with that bare, spooky expansiveness of “Vamos” reminding me of like some weird altercation in Fargo, and of course that imagery of the northern “Caribou” spicing the proceedings thusly. Then, tentatively, I’ve got the expedited, naive pop of Trompe le Monde penciled in for spring, with its brainless penchant for leading to untoward consumption of intoxicants, or whatever your folly may be.
Bossanova opens, brilliantly, with a surf-rock instrumental, “Cecilia Ann.” Now, you might say, that smacks as classic summer fare. But it’s way darker and more ominous than, say, your average Dick Dale track on Pulp Fiction — the incessant, rapid rhythms and minor chord progression conjure up a feeling of end, or even fatality, as in when the trees start dying entering the colder part of the year. “Is She Weird,” then, seems to channel the sort of unfortunately clear wisdom of a relationship ending that you’d seem to associate with fall, when things start getting real and people starting getting down to brass tacks, abandoning the sunny, beach-bound myths of the warmer months. Also, that “We will wade in the tides of the summer” reference in “Velouria” seems to be dispatched from some entity OUTSIDE of summer, like an entity longing for those long evenings and warm breezes. It’s amazing how many of these songs can go on Halloween playlists, which seem like their true calling in life, you’ve gotta admit. As a worthy companion piece I highly recommend Pixies at the BBC, which isn’t on Spotify but does offer some aerated production and streamlined versions of lots of these songs ans well as certain pithy Doolittle cuts.
Chapter 5: Reconciling Francis’ Solo Stuff and the Endgame of Beneath the Eyrie
One thing is for sure: Black Francis loved going into studios and making rock albums. When his Pixies days were done, after 1991, he went on a veritable rampage of side project and solo material creation, whether it was in his other band Frank Black and the Catholics, or under one of his TWO different solo monikers of Frank Black and Black Francis.
I tend to joke around a lot about artists being “coked up” and I’m sorry but Francis in his post-Pixies days, and maybe in his Pixies days as well, strikes me as, uh, a partier, in that sense. Ridiculously prolific, he was ardent to grab life by the horns and commandeer these rock albums as the singer and songwriter, with nothing reflective, nothing acoustic or overly melancholy. The one important exception is “Valentine and Garuda,” a beautiful midtempo rock song on the largely commendable Frank Black and the Catholics album Black Letter Days, on which, gasp, a little scrap of heartbreak does actually materialize. The song is stupefying in stature, then, to numb the contusion, bemoaning a lost love before blossoming out into the beautiful final chorus of “My eyes are small and dark / My pigeon heart is pumping blood so fast / I fly above the earth / For what it’s worth / I search for love lost in the past”.
In general, I haven’t found any of the later-era Pixies albums palatable (the ones that came out subsequent to the band’s initial, Kim-Deal-era finale of Trompe le Monde), with 2019’s Beneath the Eyrie the only one I could get through all the way, front to back. Beneath the Eyrie is a systematic, clean and “cool” sounding rock album, not too opposite in style of, say, “Letter to Memphis”; “Manta Ray” or one of the band’s other relatively conventional Bossanova or Monde tunes. Importantly, though, Eyrie is an album that builds upon the dark, still and ominous vibe initiated by the Catholics album Black Letter Days in 2002. Through “Catfish Kate,” for one, lies an almost humorous sense of hopelessness, with Francis shifting topics from a woman to the more extrapolative “Every creature gets their fill / And every creature takes their kill”. These pastoral, almost existential lyrics mark an important new turn for the band, as if Francis has found something new to mock. Of course, his mockery is always ironically laced with an intrinsic association, as if he’s pointing out fundamental snags to which we’re all susceptible in life.
In this vein, at least, the album centerpiece has got to be “This is My Fate,” which stalks along in sinister six/eight stomp time and ushers up riffs from Joey Santiago that seem haunting and piercing as ever, as if he’s traversing light years through dark space fathoms with each vibration of his guitar. Oh wait, he’s always sounded like that. But on “This is My Fate,” the original efficacy and suspense of his original guitar sound are rehashed. That’s a news story in and of itself. And “Los Surfers Muertos” sends things gloriously into the night, along this same dark path, like a celebration of death, darkness and destruction as the last things in 2019 in life that aren’t completely sterile and vacuous.
Chapter 6: “Alternate Pixies Playlist”
 There’s an account of this inspiration in John Mendelsohn’s brilliant Gigantic: The Story of Frank Black & the Pixies.