Tag Archives: Surfer Rosa

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.

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)