Pixies changed things, when they came along. I recently put together a playlist for a friend and it’s been amazing to be immersed once again with their spectacularly punchy, brilliantly melodic music that edges between pop and harsh, screeching theatre of experience.
They’re also credited with bringing loud-quiet-loud approach to playing live which among other things, Mogwai took as a primary and extraordinary tool for some of their earlier songs and continued live performances. With Mogwai, I can at least attest to moments in early, small venues when the sight of the musicians hovering above their distortion pedals while they hung there in space on a note, would send the crowd into an apoplexy of anticipation. Waiting for that unleashing of a wildly vast and seething torrent of sound, which drenches and saturates with feeling.
Pixies were always different though. When Nirvana first began writing Smells Like Teen Spirit, they called it the Pixies Song. And its precisely this hooking of something ferocious, wild with a keen, keen sense of melodic intelligence and sheer expressive force. See these performances of the epic River Euphrates.
This from Dutch TV in 1988, promoting the release of Surfer Rosa/Come On Pilgrim by 4AD (signed by the british label after founder Ivo Watts-Russel’s girlfriend convinced him not to pass on them). The scorching intensity of the band around this time is evident, but so is the alliance that this coruscating abrasiveness has with tune-smithery of the finest kind. It was also clear that the way Pixies (who broke apart initially in 1993, before reforming again in 2004) played songs such as this would change (or maybe this mostly just applies to Black Francis and his screaming). Yet here in 2005 at the Newport Folk Festival is a more laid back acoustic version which shows the song still shines.
Its probably fair to say that after the Steve Albini produced Surfer Rosa in 1988 and the slightly glossier Doolittle (produced by Gil Norton) which followed in 1989 that they didn’t attain the same heights consistently in their writing/playing. Part of what had been such a simple and profound element of their make-up, the presence of Kim Deal and her voice had by then been partly mitigated by Francis’s control of the band and acrimony ensued. The last two albums; Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde lacked the same immediately evident power.
Deal’s sonic influence (even in a minimal form) is essential to brightening and lightening some of those jagged edges, or dark storified canyons of the song. Part of their songwriting power seemed to come from having good counterparts, and using them well. Debaser (a song about being a debaser in the manner of Un Chien Andalou) for example relies on the repeated statement of a single word for its chorus, but being sung by Francis and then spoken/sung by Deal (switched at the end). In the shared space and movement that refrains back and forth between them, it becomes a simple tonal counterpoint (male affect, female affect, female affect, male affect) that is also an expression (like a palimpsest) of the word in two forms. The screamed ferocity of his ‘debaser’, the calm detached statement of hers, which then returns ahead this time, and sung with a rising refrain (co-orbiting mutation).
It was also Deal who in better times in the band had written Gigantic.
Check out this (mostly) feral version of Debaser from 1989.
Wikipedia reveals Pixies’ lyrical subjects to include ‘extraterrestrials, incest, and biblical violence’ and a band this good is always going to be coming from a place where stories take off… On this solo acoustic version of Velouria off the Bossanova album you can easily see both what a great story teller Black francis is (with his homage to the island once called Lemuria and the mysterious hirsute woman he met from there), while gliding through the very fine sensibilities of his songwriting.
Sometimes with the trajectory of a band or musician over time, a sense of their relationship with the muse (for want of a better term) can be seen, felt, heard and from Pixies’ incendiary, wild break-out a kind of opacity seems to creep into some of the music. But in this stripped down moment, a song like Velouria is beautifully bright.
No narrative of a band or person or history truly defines or encapsulates the reality (realities) of their journeying. Similarly, no idea singularly describes the reality or context of their work or being. As such, while going back through these often stupendous and quietly, abrasively shattering songs, I drew back in two of the most powerful individual moments that I had had with Pixies and perhaps strangely (maybe also because I had just missed being a contemporaenous fan) it was with two later songs that these things referred.
Actually, the first occurred indepently of the song itself… I recall towards the end of the 90’s I had asked a friend who was a bit of a megafan about the latter albums and he singled out a track from Trompe Le Monde (1991) to tell me about. He said it was about a bird who flies up in the sky, but actually dreams of flying above the Olympus Mons mountains of Mars… and as he told me, I found myself going there too, also as a bird… Its easily possible to argue the merits of the track ‘Bird Dream of the Oympus Mons‘ (and in fact its about a person who crawls into the mountains and subsequently has this dream) but the power of an idea to open us to the outside is what resonates sometimes in the encrusted tide, that delivers the shatter-blow to your recursively rolled imagination and for me it was that moment when my friend told me of the bird who dreamed of flying above the mountains of Mars.
So how it felt to me was that a band (and people) who had been as out there as this, always retain the ability to suddenly materialise something that can change your awareness or your world, or its outlines…
The second relates to when I first heard the song Alec Eiffel. It was an early find on Y’adtub for me and I felt initially that the sound was kind of dense or difficult to access, but that it had some lovely changes. I also felt that there was some very high quality riff work going on at the end of the song from guitarist Joey Santiago, and what was it with that strange synth backed vocal line schizmmering around the end?
Of course years later I came to understand that that vocal refrain, which takes the song out from middle to end is a secret, sleek juggernaut of a tune. And that while that first ‘appearance’ of the choral sounding synth line initially jutts out, it takes us to the eerie spiral effect of the refrain itself…
‘Oh alexander, I’ll see you beneath the archways of aerodynamics’
Its both mesmerising and haunting, coming like an anomaly out of this lean, charged hardcore/pop and taking the song onto another plane of itself (here’s the best live version i can find and it looks a real challenge to keep it flying in the discipline of the storm… )
‘Sometimes people can be oh so dense…’
Little Eiffel, who stands in the archway and who is a ‘pioneer of aerodynamics’ – I’m not sure I’ve felt the real impact of biographical songs before (Biko stands out when I was growing up), but listening to Alec Eiffel on occasion with an inescapable conviction that as much as Black Franics will see Alec Eiffel under the archways of aerodynamics, we – in the intensive sense that such archways exist (and have been partly carved by Alex Eiffel) are already seeing him there…
The only thing I’m aware of that comes close is the brilliant and completely underrated Hermann Loves Pauline by Super Furry Animals, loosely biographical about the love between Albert Einsein’s parents ‘they made love and gave birth, to a little German…’
What called me back this time towards the Pixies was noticing how one of the songs from their new album which I came across (ooh, a new Pixies song) still had that knack of turning melodic corners in unsuspecting but satisfying ways.
In their reformed mode, Paz Lenchantin has played bass and sung since 2013 (with Kim Deal departing) and long may they continue.
So while they’re clearly not lacking in acknowledgement, it also occurred to me that with something as good and as alive as the music of Pixies, individual connections with facets sometimes get missed, while the best thing of course, is to find your own.
The video at the top of this post is a live Pixies set from Glastonbury 1989 and is by a long margin the best live set by them I’ve found on the Adtub. Great work from user ChrisB who as he says, put together the bootleg video with an FM transission from the Beeb. Electric. Electrifying. Pixies, use them, they’ll blow you away…
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