Tag Archives: Pixies

The Pixies’ Bossanova at Thirty

In a piece on this blog years ago – a piece about the Pixies, as it happens – I argued that critics and fans should judge artists by their best work, while artists should judge themselves by their worst work, or at least by their average, as a way to keep humble and looking to learn and improve.

The context for that was the release of the Pixies’ Indie Cindy. It got kicked from pillar to post by fans and critics alike, but I argued didn’t spoil the band’s legacy and took nothing away from the work they did in the late eighties. I’d no more judge the Pixies on, say, Bagboy than I’d judge Bob Dylan on track three on the second side of Knocked Out Loaded.

But if we reduce the Pixies just to Doolittle and Surfer Rosa (the latter of which I’m much, much fonder of), what of Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde? The latter is a weird record, one I’ve never connected with. I suspect it’s simply not very good. Bossanova, thirty years old this month, is a different case.

It starts well. No, scratch that. It starts very well. The band’s cover of the Surftones’ instrumental Cecilia Ann is the first Pixies record I ever heard, as it’s track one, side one of the 1997 compilation Death to the Pixies, and it’s absolutely great. The band barrel into it with full-bore commitment and no little precision, and it’s full of weird flourishes, synths and ghostly vocals and guitars that turn a surf song into a sci-fi surf song, thus setting out Bossanova‘s stall: it is, pretty much, a sci-fi surf album.

Track two, Rock Music, is the most extreme the band get on Bossanova (it’s not the album for you if you enjoy Black Francis most when he’s in veins-bulging, vocal-cord-tearing mode), but again, it’s askew. Dave Lovering plays a song called “Rock Music” with a four-on-the floor disco pulse, which is a neat little joke for those who catch it, while Joey Santiago tears some of his most angular noise out of his Les Paul, fighting Francis’s vocal all the way through. If you’re not in the mood for it, it’s a grating headache of a record, but on the right day, it sure sounds like the Pixies at the top of their game.

Velouria is unquestionably the Pixies at the top of their game. It’s built on a cool chord sequence in the verse and a grindy opening riff with that incorporates dissonant augmented intervals, but the tune is wistful and pretty, as Francis spins an impressionistic tale of a girl from the lost continent of Lemuria who’s covered in fur and lives in a hollowed-out mountain (I think. His explanation is pretty tough to follow). Once again, it has a spacey kind of feel, this time from its prominent theremin, and Lovering is in commanding form – his tom-and-snare build-ups that take the band back into the big riff are arena-ready stuff, an air drummer’s dream. It even has some Kim Deal backing vocals, which are mostly absent from Bossanova, to the record’s detriment.

Unfortunately, this is as good as Bossanova gets, and the drop-off is both marked and immediate. Charles Thompson (sorry, I know he was Black Francis then, but it seems daft to refer to present-day Thompson as the stage name he adopted in his early twenties) has said he wrote a lot of his lyrics on the fly, five minutes before recording them, but the record’s shortcomings go deeper than just the lyrics.

I think, fundamentally, Bossanova revealed a bigger problem with his songwriting. Thompson’s melody writing is just not very ambitious or creative (compared to so many of his peers, but to pick two that are most instructive, listen to Bossanova and then Pod by Kim Deal’s Breeders, or to Nirvana’s Nevermind). Without the manic energy that drove the band on Doolittle and especially Surfer Rosa, his songs can sound a bit undeveloped. There are a lot of songs here that don’t really go anywhere, with only the Talking Heads pastiche Dig for Fire, the lovely closing track Havalina and the partially successful The Happening standing out.

The latter encapsulates Bossanova‘s strengths and weaknesses. Intially it sounds like another one of the record’s plodding, clean-guitar, gated-drums, whispered-vocals songs, before 30 seconds in it takes an unexpected turn and Thompson/Francis lets rip. But the compelling verse, a twisted blues in form, is then undercut by the chorus that consists of a falsetto Francis (at least, I think it’s him; it’s pitchier than I’d expect from Kim Deal) singing the simple phrase “Beneath the sky” four times. It’s just so inert. The second time the chorus comes around, seemingly aware of the problem, he adds a monotone eighth-note countermelody, but that, too, gets wearying quickly. When the song finally fades out and the reverb-saturated Blown Away begins, it’s actually a relief.

The overall sense of the album is that of a well running dry. The Pixies had made a mini album, Come on Pilgrim, in 1987, Surfer Rosa in 1988 and Doolittle in 1989. That’s a lot of activity in a short time. The band had toured extensively, too, particularly in Europe. In early 1990, Kim Deal had recorded her first album with the Breeders, on which she wrote or co-wrote everything, and consequently she had no songs on Bossanova. She and Thompson were at daggers drawn after their previous tour. Charles Thompson had concentrated all power within the band in himself, and while he made a laudable effort to move the band’s sound on rather than just make Doolittle part II, he couldn’t find within him a set of songs on Doolittle‘s level, let alone Surfer Rosa‘s.

Trompe Le Monde has its fans (among them Foo Fighters’ leader Dave Grohl), but for most the downturn signalled by Bossanova was permanent. Nothing the Pixies did after its first three songs hit the same heights as their work between 1987-89. A record that’s equal parts anthemic triumph, flawed experiment and tedious retreading of familiar ground, Bossanova is the sound of a band losing its grip on greatness.

Sue – Frazier Chorus

Well, another general election result in the UK I can’t bring myself to think about, let alone write cogently about. So, instead, here’s another piece about a little-known 4AD record. This time we’re looking at Sue, the debut album by the Frazier Chorus.

We can file this under: “Not for everyone”.

Frazier Chorus were a four-piece band when they released Sue in 1989. While that initial line-up contained a flautist (Kate Holmes, later of Technique and Client) and clarinet player (no bassist, drummer or guitarist), the band was essentially a vehicle for the songs and voice of Tim Freeman (older brother of actor Martin Freeman) and each record the band released featured a different line-up.

Freeman’s whispered sprechgesang and the band’s rather rinky-dink programmed beats and synths, decorated with touches of flute and clarinet, make the Pet Shop Boys sound like AC/DC. They sound a little like a synth-pop version of Belle & Sebastian, five years or so before the fact, and a similar bleakly cynical outlook to Jarvis Cocker in Freeman’s observational lyrics.

There’s some good stuff here. Storm, with its insistent synth cellos, is really effective; Sloppy Heart, which was Ivo Watts-Russell’s favourite and I gather was the song that got the band signed, is a neat indie-pop song; opener Dream Kitchen sets out Freeman’s musical and lyrical stall within 35 seconds (the lines “your life’s too good to be true; I think I’ll ruin it for you” was when I felt like I cottoned on to what Freeman was up to).

But some of the songs – usually the ones that gesture towards jazz or contemporaneous sophisti-pop – exist in a strange place where the combination of synths and acoustic instruments feels bland rather than exciting; the intro of 40 Winks sounds like the theme of a forgotten ITV sitcom from the mid-1980s, and Sugar High’s perky keyboard and faux-marimba is a similar low point. Over the course of 11 songs, Freeman’s limited voice becomes a bit of a problem too.

The best three or four songs on Sue are definitely worth a listen, but I’m not sure the recipe works at album length. I wonder where Ivo was coming from with Frazier Chorus. They feel like an odd fit for 4AD at the time, when the label’s most vital bands were the Pixies and the Throwing Muses, and the Cocteau Twins were just about to hit their peak with Heaven or Las Vegas. Perhaps he wanted just wanted to sign something small scale and intimate. A curio, then.

 

The Replacements @ the Roundhouse, London

Last night I saw the Replacements at the Roundhouse in London.

I never thought I’d write that sentence.

I’m too young for the Replacements to mean to me what they evidently meant to a good few people at the show last night. When the Mats helped to show that not all Midwest rock had to be Chicago or REO Speedwagon in the early 1980s (or rather, that there could be a path between the Speedwagon on one hand and Hüsker Dü on the other), I was toddling around, falling over a lot and picking up things and putting them in my mouth.

By the time I knew about them, the band had been defunct for five years or so, and Paul Westerberg was no longer someone to watch as a potential solo star. He and his career were past tense. Suicaine Gratification (still a dreadful title), Mono, Stereo, Folker – Westerberg/Grandpaboy records came and went and made no impression on me, despite the enthusiasm of my good friend and gig buddy Yo Zushi.

But still, once a fan… I was keen to go to the show, relieved that Yo had got tickets (the day they went on sale, I was ill in bed. Very ill. No-energy-to-even-crawl-to-my-laptop ill) and had been getting increasingly excited over the last few days. But in a low-stakes sort of way. The whole point about the Replacements (as with my beloved Sebadoh) was that they were a chaotic live act, by all accounts capable of jaw-dropping power and buffoonish incompetence within the same show. The same song, even. So if they were terrible, fine – at least I’d know I’d seen a legit Replacements gig. And they might be great.

They were, well, mainly great. The start of the show saw them smashing headlong into their early material, all played at a furious, hardcore-like tempo (they were always too tuneful and interior-looking to be hardcore really, but they did play as quickly as their cross-town rivals the Hüskers in the early days): Takin’ a Ride, I’m in Trouble, Favorite Thing (a thrilling moment, that – the best marriage of melody and heavy riffing during their Twin/Tone era), Tommy gets his Tonsils Out. Bam bam bam. Their drummer, Josh Freese, deserves a lot of credit, for maintaining the energy levels as much as anything.

Achin’ to Be provided a mid-set highlight, but here the limitations of their current approach to their set, and of their touring guitarist Dave Minehan, did start to become apparent. At the moment the Replacements live experience is of a group are plugged in and amped up at all times: an acoustic guitar and some light and shade wouldn’t go amiss occasionally. The ability to move from one to the other, to do Skyway as well as Bastards of Young, was what defined the Replacements. It’s the very thing that made them so great.

Minehan, meanwhile, had been the band’s MVP during the first half of the set, throwing himself around like a man half his age (from my vantage point, the boyish guitarist really did look like a kid who’d won a competition to play on stage with his favourite band) and doing a credible job of filling in for the late Bob Stinson. But he seemed to fade away as the night went on, becoming less and less integral to the songs. On reflection, I wonder whether he simply doesn’t slip as well into Slim Dunlap’s shoes as he does Stinson’s. Dunlap’s single-note lead guitar on a song like Achin’ to Be is simple in effect but tricky to execute: it has to be played absolutely straight, and in the middle of a rock show, with all that adrenaline, it takes a lot of self-discipline to play it that straight (there was more of this to come).

The final third of the set was a victory lap: I’ll Be You, a cover of Maybellene (as sloppy as you could hope from the group that gave us Like a Rolling Pin), Can’t Hardly Wait, Bastards of Young (segueing into My Boy Lollipop), Left of the Dial and finally Alex Chilton. You almost had to pinch yourself. Yeah, that man up there who wrote all these songs is singing all these songs on British soil for the first time in 24 years and we’re watching him do it. It was quite something.

The encore, well, it was a bit of a let-down. I’d hoped they’d play Unsatisfied. When they did, I wished they hadn’t. Michael Hann in The Guardian loved it. For me, the song was spoiled by Minehan’s slide guitar (pedal steel does feature on the recording, but subtly: a few swoops here and there, in the background): Minehan was too loud, too busy and sometimes out of key. Westerberg meanwhile sang the song distractedly, pulling the phrasing around until it felt wrong and missing out the key line (“I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied”), possibly because it hasn’t occured to him that it’s the song’s emotional crux. It served as a reminder that, as I’ve said before, the record and Westerberg’s vocal performance are essentially the same thing. A moment like that is unrepeatable and I should have realised it would be.

The rest of the set (just a couple of songs) passed me by. I was now thinking about how and why Unsatisfied hadn’t come off but, more happily, of how great the rest of the show had been. I’d feared a cold-eyed, Pixies-style cash-in, where the band’s cupidity threatens to drown out the damn music. It was a long way from that. They were great, Westerberg and Tommy Stinson were clearly having a ball and only the most hardened cynic could have heard I’ll Be You without getting a little bit misty. They may even go on from here to do a Go-Betweens or a Dinosaur Jr and make new music in their second life that’s just as vital as the work they did in their first. I wouldn’t bet against them. Alternatively it may all fall apart tomorrow. They are, after all, the Replacements.

Update: It did all fall apart, the day after I wrote this, after their set at Primavera. Thanks, guys.

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Paul Westerberg @ the Roundhouse, 03/06/15

More bassists to come at the weekend!

Recent work:

Pod by the Breeders

Hi there. It’s the day after the UK general election today, and I have to admit, I didn’t feel a great deal like writing anything other than a long, angry rant. But that would just have made me feel worse without actually changing anything. Instead I decided it’d be a good idea to write about something I genuinely don’t have a bad word for: Pod, by the Breeders, a subject I’ve been holding in reserve for a month or so. On another day, my write-up might have been more exuberant, but this is what I’ve got in me today.

A couple of years ago a bit of a, um, splash was made about the 20th anniversary of the Breeders’ second album, Last Splash. That’s the one with Cannonball, Divine Hammer and Saints on it. I remain unconvinced by Last Splash. I’ll go into bat for Divine Hammer and Cannonball, even if I personally have no wish to hear it again. The cover of Drivin’ on 9 is a career highlight for Kim Deal as a singer. No Aloha and New Year I’ll keep. That’s five out of 15. The rest I’d struggle to say anything about, good, bad or indifferent.

Pod, though. Pod sounds stranger and more wonderful every year. I never stop going back to it. And if I ever needed an excuse to write about it, it’s 25 years old this year.

OK, Mr So Deep, you say. Pod. The one with Tanya Donelly on it, recorded by Steve Albini? Pretty obvious why you like that one more, isn’t it?

Well, I can’t deny my fondness for those two artists. But Pod is Deal’s album. Literally so, as the plan that Donelly and Deal cooked up for the Breeders originally is that they’d make an album of Deal songs before then making a record of Donelly songs (they demoed some of the material that Donelly ended up using for the first Belly record, Star). Deal sang lead and wrote or co-wrote every song on Pod except the cover of the Beatles’ Happiness is a Warm Gun.

There’s nothing else like it; the closest I’ve heard is the Breeders’ own Title TK, but that’s a weak brew indeed compared to Pod. There’s a hint of the Pixies (still Deal’s main band at the time, and would remain so for another year or so after Pod’s release) in the way the songs put classic AB form in the service of some unlikely, surreal, subjects. The way that Deal’s and Donelly’s guitars play around each other sometimes recalls the interplay of Kristin Hersh and Donelly on Throwing Muses records (like Deal, Donelly had one more record with her main band left in her at this point).

But even with those precedents, it’s a singular album. The arrangements are sparse – there’s much less of that steady-state distorted guitar that you get on Pixies records – and the record is very “live” sounding: there’s background chatter audible at the end of songs, and all the way through the quiet, spoken intro verses of Metal Man; a spontaneous-sounding outro jam extends When I Was a Painter by over a minute (a long time when the record only lasts half an hour); Deal’s voice breaks into a squeal on Oh! and is left uncorrected. Overdubs sound few, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there were none at all.

It’s far from passionless, but it is somewhat detached-sounding. Indeed the album’s most compelling music comes from the tension between Deal’s frequently blank delivery and the themes and ideas that the lyrics hint at but never fully reveal. While dark, the effect is always just short of menacing, since Deal and Donelly are not sparing with hooks. I’ve remarked before on how Donelly’s work with Belly played in the space between the lulling and the nightmarish. Deal’s songs on Pod work similarly. Perhaps this influence ran from Donelly to Deal because it seems to have departed from the Breeders when she left; it’s entirely absent from Last Splash and is only occasionally tangible on later records.

It goes without saying that Pod sounds great, too. Spacious and powerful. With the mixes left relatively sparse and the guitars frequently hard-panned, Pod is as good as it gets for fans of the Albini drum sound. Britt Walford, on loan from Slint and playing under the pseudonym Shannon Doughton, sounds enormous. And what drummer doesn’t want to sound enormous?

If you’re unfamiliar with Pod and have any fondness for the indie rock music of that era, you are missing out on one of the finest records of its type.

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The Breeders in 1992, circa Safari: l-r Kelley Deal, Tanya Donelly, Josephine Wiggs, Britt Walford, Kim Deal (the Deal sister are identical twins, so if I’ve got them the wrong way round, do forgive me!)

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)