The Pixies were the freaky granddads of my love for rock music. Between 1988 and 1992 the band released some of the most darkly whimsical, disjointedly energetic, and truly deranged music ever. The first time I heard their anthem “Monkey Gone to Heaven”—I was 5 years old and riding in my car seat at the time—I was hooked. Thirteen years later and I have the cover art for their masterpiece, “Doolittle” tattooed on my arm.
Then in 2014 the band reunited to produce their first album in more than 20 years. Excited much? But “Indie Cindy” was unfortunately bland and by far the poppiest album from the band. It was more reminiscent of lead singer Frank Black’s countrified solo work than anything in the
But then, last week, the band released their second new album, “Head Carrier.”And once again I am bummed. I suppose it’s unrealistic to expect the old magic. Kim Deal’s constant thudding bass and angelic backing vocals walked out the door with her in 2013. After that the three remaining Pixies went through several new bassists, none of whom lived up to Deal.
But it’s not just Deal that’s missing. Frank Black (lovingly nicknamed Black Francis) was a madman on early Pixies albums, packing his lyrics with blasphemy, mutilation, and random spitfire Spanish. Remember this from “Monkey Gone to Heaven:” “There was a guy/An underwater guy who controlled the sea/ Got killed by ten million pounds of slush from New York and New
Or this from “All Over the World:” “With a pet at my side/ God in the sky/ Snow falling down/ freeze my body to the ground”?
Or my personal favorite from “Debaser”: “Slicing up eyeballs/ I want you to know”? What is he even talking about? I have no idea. But those are some of the most darkly vivid and surreal lyrics ever written.
On “Head Carrier”, Black is clearly trying to revive that old freaky mindset. And yeah, the lyrics are weird. But now they feel forced and contrived. Consider this: “You look like a praying mantis/ you could say that the bug is man/ big joke or small disaster/ last chance before they give it the plaster.”
Or this: “I bet he’s a classic masher/ He toot toots when he likes the view/Tete-a-tete with his haberdasher/ they talk boot while they laugh at you.”
The brilliant thing about early Pixies’ lyrics was the conviction with which Black would spout genuine insanity. Now he sounds like he’s just saying random things.
Musically, “Head Carrier” often tries to pull from past albums, but lacks the spontaneity and energy of the Pixies’ early recordings. On “Baal’s Back” Black shouts coarsely, much in the vein of Doolittle’s
“Tame.” But where’s the rage? Black’s massive voice is just volume, devoid of any real passion.
Guitarist Joey Santiago has always used his disjointed, shrieking lead riffs to cut through whatever the rest of the band was doing. On “Talent,” Santiago’s guitar wails and moans the way it did all over
“Surfer Rosa.” But the tone is under-distorted and buried beneath the album’s production. There is no rawness to “Head Carrier.”
I sympathize with bassist Paz Lenchantin, who is trying to fill impossibly large shoes. Her bass playing is almost identical to Deal’s, pumping in the back of every song. She also assumes the cool, chilled out falsetto with which Deal complemented Black’s barking vocals. She
seems the member of the band with the firmest grasp on what made the Pixies’ music brilliant.
“Head Carrier” isn’t unlistenable. It’s just uninteresting. The Pixies are one of the most inventive bands of all time, but you wouldn’t know it from this.
Still, I’ll never give up hope that the Pixies will someday get their weird back.