Pixies: Indie Cindy, Death to the Pixies, Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, and so on

Judge the artist by their best work. It’s only fair. In turn, artists might consider judging themselves by their worst work, or at least their average. It’s a good way to keep humble and looking to improve.

If you judge an artist by their best work, there’s no need to get upset about their current output if it’s a long way below their best stuff. I doubt I’ll ever hear more than a track or two off Indie Cindy, the new Pixies ‘album’ (a repackaging of three recent EPs). Bagboy was of no consequence to me, nor a decade back was Bam Thwok. I saw the Pixies movie a few years ago, thought it reflected pretty poorly on two members of the band (Thompson, Lovering) and well on the other two (Deal, Santiago), but whatever. I don’t need to like Charles Thompson or like what he’s doing now to appreciate what he did then.

I’m not that old, though, in case you’re wondering. I was too young to have seen them the first time round. I first heard the Pixies’ music in early 1998, a few months after the Death to the Pixies compilation was released. Those first few songs – the cover of the Surftones’ Cecilia Ann, Planet of Sound, Tame, Here Comes Your Man, Debaser – were all I needed to know to get them. Despite the over-representation of Doolittle and the corresponding neglect of Surfer Rosa, I still think Death to the Pixies was well compiled and a really good introduction to the Pixies. The range of music piled into those opening songs, some of it a little strange, some of it knowingly straightforward, was huge. If you replaced Tame with Bone Machine, you could pretty much encapsulate the Pixies entirely with those five songs.

Nowadays, if I’m going to listen to a Pixies record, it will be Surfer Rosa. I don’t hear the same thing in Doolittle that a lot of people seem to. To my ears, it’s thin-sounding, a little hemmed in, not exciting on a visceral level. The drums are at once too loud and lacking impact and body. The guitars don’t have that desperate feral edge to them (was there ever a better match of guitar player and recording engineer than Joey Santiago and Steve Albini?). Doolittle scores highly for songs you can lift off the record and play for people who don’t know the band, and I’d not want to be without Debaser, Here Comes Your Man and Gouge Away, but I’m not so struck on Tame, Monkey Gone to Heaven and Hey (maybe that’s unfair on Hey – it’s a good song, if not quite a masterpiece); the run from Mr Grieves to Number 13 Baby, meanwhile, is a huge lead weight dragging the record down. It’s a 15-song album that’s begging to be 10. Its reputation does seem to me somewhat inflated. Surfer Rosa may be much less, to use (Doolittle producer) Gil Norton’s term ‘portable’, but is a much more cohesive, satisfying whole.

The last two albums are only worth mentioning in passing. Bossanova’s very shiny, shorter on aggression. Its greatest moment are Cecilia Ann and Velouria; the rest, well, the band was getting short of ideas (not Deal, as Pod, the first Breeders album from 1990 shows, but this is where her marginalisation began). Trompe le Monde is mostly a bore.

The Pixies reuniting seemed unlikely to me ever to produce good music, when Charles Thompson hadn’t written a song worth spending time with for years anyway. Ultimately the band’s reputation rests on their debut EP and the first two albums, which are both classics, even if we have to agree to disagree over which are the best bits. Yeah, perhaps it would be nice if Thompson only recorded music when he had something to say, but Surfer Rosa makes a loud enough noise to drown out Indie Cindy this week, and by next week no one will remember the latter even existed. They’ll all be listening to Gigantic and River Euphrates.

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Kim Deal, Joey Santiago, David Lovering, Charles Thompson (oh, all right then, Black Francis)

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3 thoughts on “Pixies: Indie Cindy, Death to the Pixies, Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, and so on

  1. James McKean

    Hmmm… do you really think Doolittle is a ‘classic’? You seem to be saying its far too long, inconsistent and not wonderfully well-produced!

    Anyway the thing that really interested me here is the idea that we should judge artists by their best work. I don’t think, on the whole, that we do (or at least I do). And I’m don’t know whether we should or not.

    There are many songs I rate extremely highly by artists who I don’t have huge amounts of time for. Let’s take Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River as an example. I think it’s brilliant. Top notch. But if someone asked me what I think of JT, I don’t think I’d say that I love his music. Or even that I rate him particularly highly. (‘Hold on a minute’, you might say, ‘that was really a Timbaland’ thing’… Blah blah. But let’s not complicate the issue).

    Elton John wrote several wonderful songs in the 70s (and beyond). I’ve been listening to him a fair amount of late. But in my opinion, based upon the few that I’ve heard, I’m not convinced that even his best studio albums were all that strong. Again, if I was asked to judge him as an artist, this fact (or opinion) would certainly colour my judgement (Even though I’m aware that he released something like 21 in 6 or 7 years, so of course they were inconsistent!).

    I’ve been thinking about Embrace a fair bit this week, as they make another rather unlikely comeback. It’s very easy for me to over-estimate my regard for their music, based upon the fact that I’ve followed their fortunes closely for over half my life(?!). They helped introduce me to Sly and the Family Stone, Jeff Buckley, In Utero, Smokey Robinson, Leonard Cohen and others as a young man (Granted, in time I may well have discovered all this later on, but that’s not really the point). But it’s also very easy for me to under-estimate my regard for their music, based upon the fact that all of their albums are significantly flawed; particularly as their critical reputation has diminished.

    With Embrace, it’s probably made tougher by the fact that oftentimes their best recordings are not of their best songs. This is probably not uncommon: it’s been true at times with my own stuff and I’ve seen it in others too. I think it stems from the extra pressure an artist puts themselves under to really nail a strong song. But it’s something one doesn’t see so much in the really great artists. Maybe because they’re more confident that more great songs are just around the corner.

    Another interesting example would be to compare Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. I think Stevie is unquestionably the greater artist (and not simply because he is still alive!). At his peak he released 5 great albums (including a double with bonus EP) in 5/6 years. Across the same time frame Marvin released the patchy LGIO, an enjoyable but very slight soundtrack, and I Want You, which in a fairer world wouldn’t even have been his album. Oh, and the greatest album ever (well, one of them)!

    I’m not entirely sure what leads me to my judgement that Stevie is the greater, when Marvin’s peak was higher. Perhaps because of his manifestly more impressive instrumental ability? Perhaps (in large part because of the previous reason) because he wasn’t so reliant upon collaborators. Perhaps because he worked harder, and was more prolific. Although I know that in part Marvin’s relative inactivity was because he was so troubled, and because he pretty-much chained smoked marijuana. He wouldn’t have been the artist he was without these things. That was who he was (Yes, he might have been a greater artist. I don’t want to romanticise that stuff. But he certainly wouldn’t have been the same).

    Is the best work of an artist their best single, their best EP, their best studio album, their best best-of, or their best specifically compiled iTunes playlist? I don’t know.

    Do I consider Queen to be ‘better’ than Dylan because they wrote and recorded the best pop song ever made? I don’t think I do. Should I? I’m not sure. Anyhow I’m rambling.

    Reply
    1. rossjpalmer Post author

      I had in mind a line from Samuel Johnson I remembered from uni: ‘While an authour is yet living we estimate his powers by his worst performance, and when he is dead we rate them by his best.’
      My whole ‘judge an artist by his best work’ thing is a reminder to myself — and anyone else who has a mind to — to be fair in judgement. To bear in mind the best that an artist does, as it’s usually easier to recall the worst.
      As to how I put this into practice, it’s by actively remembering that no amount of duff work detracts from a classic made earlier in a career. And I do try to bear it in mind in my own judgements. If someone were to ask me what I thought of Elton John (he’s a good example anyway so it’s useful you mention him), I’d say something like ‘At his best I think he’s great’. Which may seem like a cop-out, but I think is fairer than a binary classic/dud response.
      RE Doolittle, it’s got some great songs on it, recorded and mixed rather poorly (a perennial Gil Norton problem). It’s a classic, but I think a marginal one.

      Reply

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