As the rock underground slouched towards mainstream acceptance in the late-’80s — well before the grungequake made such baby steps seem trivial — the Pixies fired a much-needed salvo of strident aggression and willful nonconformity across the bow of left-field music. Although the quartet became the influential darlings of college radio, the Pixies proved to be less hallowed institution than primary inspiration (to, among others, Nirvana) and prep school, readying its two principal figures — singer/guitarist Black Francis and bassist/singer Kim Deal (billed on the early records as Mrs. John Murphy) — for not always bigger and not always better things.
The Pixies hailed from such diverse locales as Ohio, the Philippines, California and Boston, where the group assembled in 1986. Following Throwing Muses onto Britain’s 4AD label, they debuted with Come on Pilgrim, an eight-song explosion (recorded, roughly, as a demo) of gritty art passion: strummed and scratched acoustic and electric guitars, vocals sung and shrieked in English and Spanish, rhythms that race, rest and drift. The fuzzy chaos alternates noisy pop melodicism with primal anarchy; fervid singer Black (Charles) Francis’ lyrics, when audible, skew towards surprising, occasionally shocking terrain. Difficult and intriguing.
Chicago ex-rock crit/Big Black mainman (not yet established as a bigtime underground studio maven) Steve Albini produced Surfer Rosa, giving the Pixies a virulent, slashing guitar sound and organizing Deal and drummer David Lovering into a stronger, surer rhythm unit. A sturdy grasp on melody and the importance of good — not necessarily pleasant — vocals (Francis and Deal) make songs like “Bone Machine,” “Gigantic,” “Vamos” (reprised from Pilgrim) and the crazed B-52’s noise parody of “Tony’s Theme” into gripping rock that equally invites dancing and bewildered headshaking. (The CD of Surfer Rosa includes Come on Pilgrim.)
Taking the spotlight off Francis, the Gigantic 12-inch features Deal singing on all four of its tracks: superior remakes (produced by Gil Norton) of the title tune and “River Euphrates” (another Surfer Rosa number) and exciting live renditions of “Vamos” and “Heaven,” a brief song learned from the Eraserhead soundtrack.
Doolittle is the apotheosis of the Pixies’ art, a tension-filled blend of abrasion and balm that shifts uneasily between the freakout horror of “Debaser,” the catchy pop of “Here Comes Your Man,” the punky roar of “Crackity Jones,” the melodic surf-noise of “Wave of Mutilation” and the unnerving calm of “Monkey Gone to Heaven.” Gil Norton’s production helps rein in Francis’ excessive tendencies (not that he doesn’t still manage some merciless shrieking) and harnesses Joey Santiago’s guitar to striking effect.
The Monkey EP has three non-LP studio tracks: two variations on a theme (“Manta Ray” and “Dancing the Manta Ray”) and the silly “Weird at My School.” Here Comes Your Man has a really slow live rendition of “Wave of Mutilation” as well as “Into the White” and “Bailey’s Walk,” half-assed studio productions that sound like abandoned song demos.
Though also produced by Norton, Bossanova is poorly mixed and displays little variety or invention outside of the CD booklet’s art direction. Whether the result of too much praise and power or merely a creative drought, Bossanova is a major drag with a few good songs (the lyrics are especially trivial) and an annoying atmosphere of smug indifference. Reasonably well-crafted tracks like “Velouria,” “The Happening,” “Blown Away” and “Allison,” all of which would have been fine secondary items on Doolittle, are hardly adequate to carry an album on their own, and the rest of Bossanova offers them neither support nor competition.
The Pixies — sounding more and more like the Black Francis Experience (except on the Deal-sung “The Navajo Know”) — relocate their truculent energy but not their capacity for memorable (even dynamic) songwriting on the thin-sounding Trompe le Monde. A taut cover of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On” mainly succeeds in calling attention to the material issue. Except for a couple of opaque relationship numbers (“Subbacultcha,” “Letter to Memphis”), the gulf between what the band’s lyrics evidently concern and what the enigmatic phrases actually convey has never been wider; even what appear to be clear-cut topicals like “U-Mass,” “Alec Eiffel” and “The Sad Punk” make only tangential reference to their nominal subjects. The faint traces of stylistic imagination (“Lovely Day” starts off in Motown and winds up among the New York Dolls) only amplify the vacuum where the group’s inspiration once burned.
Two albums too late, the Pixies gave up the ghost of a once-glorious career, releasing its members to follow their divergent creative paths. Black Francis inverted his name to Frank Black and went solo; Deal switched to guitar and made a full-time go of her side project, the Breeders. Adopting a lower profile, Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering formed a new quartet, the Martinis, that was never heard of again. The Pixies reunited for a tour in 2004.
Minotaur is boxed set, available in two version ($175 and $450!), containing Come on Pilgrim, Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, Bossanova and Trompe le Monde plus a vintage concert DVD, a book, videos and more.
The tribute album features an eclectic group of acolytes — Joy Zipper, John P. Strohm, They Might Be Giants, British Sea Power, Mogwai and OK Go — performing a Pixies greatest hits sampler.