15
May
14

When A Reunion Isn’t: Pixies – Indie Cindy

1. Let’s start with what this isn’t. This isn’t the Pixies band you loved as a teenager. This isn’t even the same band that played Monkey Gone to Heaven back on Letterman maybe a decade ago. This is Pixies, yes, but this isn’t the same Pixies, the same as The Rolling Stones who did Steel Wheels aren’t the same Stones who did Exile on Main Street.

That Pixies, the one everyone more or less loves, is gone and has been for a long time. It wasn’t even there when Pixies released their last full length, back in the early 90s: Tromp le Monde was a Frank Black solo album where he’s backed by David Lovering, Joey Santiago and Kim Deal.

The Pixies everyone loves was really only a band for a couple of albums: Surfer Rosa and Doolittle, maybe Bossanova if you’re feeling generous. It was a band, full stop. Both Black and Deal wrote the songs; both their voices and influences shaped the band’s music. You couldn’t have the thrashing, abrasive Something Against You without the catchy, driving Gigantic as a counterweight. At their best, Pixies was a band of contrasting sounds and when everything clicked, they were as good as anyone ever.

2. That Pixies died when Black and Deal stopped working together. On their first two albums, Deal only wrote one song on each and sings lead on just a handful of tunes, but you can feel her presence all over the records, from her spoken intro on I’m Amazed, the shouting on Tony’s Theme and her vocals all over nearly everything.

But by their last album, Deal was barely there. That could be her playing bass on U-Mass, but it could just as well be Santiago or Black. On Alec Eiffel, Black’s singing his own backup vocals – not Deal. In this sense, Trompe le Monde has more in common with albums like Teenager of the Year or Frank Black than it does Surfer Rosa.

You can just about draw a neat line between Teenager and Deal’s first album with The Breeders: hers is poppier, Black’s is spikey. Deal’s Cannonball is catchy and fun alt-rock tune where Black’s Los Angeles is driving and propulsive.

About a decade later, they got back together and started touring. I remember taping an episode of Austin City Limits where they (and Guided by Voices!) played a set. It wasn’t revelatory in any sense, but it was cool to see a band I liked and thought was forever finished get back together. Some friends of mine saw them live and had similar reactions: it was cool to see them live, but it wasn’t life changing. It was just cool.

3. Late last year Pixies released an EP on their website. I remember it coming out of the blue: they’d released a single called Bagboy I didn’t think much of, but that was it. Critically, it tanked: in a body slam of a review, Pitchfork called it a soon-to-be-forgotten chapter in the band’s history.

God bless ‘em, though: they followed with another EP a few months later, which got slightly better reviews. And now they’ve followed with a full-length, mostly compiled from those EPs, the Bagboy single and some other loose cuts.

As I noted in my review of the first EP, this record has more in common with Black’s solo albums than any previous Pixies record. This makes sense when you think about it: even after Pixies got back together, Black continued releasing material as a solo artist. He’s not the same guy he was in 1991, so it makes sense his new material doesn’t sound like something he wrote over two decades ago.

And it makes sense for Black to write and release new material with a reformed Pixies. Why hire and rehearse a new backing band in the moments between Pixies gigs when he can just work with the same musicians he’s been working with for nearly 30 years? He knows what they can and can’t do; on the EPs, they’ve been hashing the songs out together, working on how riffs should sound, where the drum fills go.
Except it’s not really the same band. Deal’s long gone, having quit around the time they started working on new material. So is her replacement, Kim Shattuck. Black seems to have a specific idea in mind for a bass player – a woman who can sing some backup, maybe one of Deal’s songs – and when they don’t fit into what he wants, they go.

In his memoir, Waging Heavy Music, Neil Young wrote about the need for making changes in his bands: “It hurts to be honest, but the muse has no conscience. If you do it for the music… everything else is secondary.” I imagine Black would agree (and after all, he’s released a couple Young covers over the years).

4.  Part of the negative reaction to the two EPs and this new full-length is pedigree: they’re Pixies albums and I loved Surfer Rosa/Bossanova/Doolittle but these EPs don’t sound like the band I loved. Therefore, they must be awful: they’re ruining my memory of a band.

But what if they had a different name? If Indie Cindy and the two EPs weren’t released by Pixies, would they get better press? That goes to the above point: the 2014 Pixies aren’t the same as the 1988 Pixies. It’s largely a matter of semantics, but it goes to the negative reaction, too. Just about every negative review has the same subtext: doesn’t it suck when your favourite band gets back together?

I know where they’re coming from, but I think it’s a little misguided. Yes, these new tracks don’t sound like old Pixies, but they didn’t come from the same band, either. It’s not like Blacks and Greens was found on an old build reel left behind at Fort Apache Studios; this is something coming from a different person, a different band.

The new songs aren’t bad, although I’ll be the first to admit they aren’t great either. Some of the new tunes fall flat: Bagboy’s a pile of hot trash and Andro Queen doesn’t do much for me, either: too much reverb.

But some of them are pretty decent: Blue Eyed Hexe has great, loud guitar riffs and Black shouting himself horse over a stomping beat while What Goes Boom has a good loud-quiet dynamic, with Santiago’s guitar giving it the music a nervous edge Black’s been missing for years.

5. The thing is, they don’t sound like Pixies. The brutal beat and shredding guitars of Hexe reminded me of Bone Machine, one of my favourite tunes. But jumping A-to-B is jarring: the guitars are sludgier, Black’s singing more furious than ever but it’s missing Deal’s backing vocals.

It’s not just there, either. All throughout this record, Deal’s absence makes her more felt than ever. You never really think about all the times she harmonized with Black, about her poppy basslines until they’re not there. On this new record, the songs are all okay – but they all feel like they’re missing something, like they’re a step or two removed from sounding like the real Pixies.

And it all comes down to who’s not there. And who is: Frank Black, whose fingerprints are all over the thing. When I hear a song like Greens and Blues my first thought is something like “this is a nice change of pace from Hexe” and maybe something about the guitar. The third or fourth time around, I just think about how much better it would’ve sounded with Deal singing on the chorus.

As a record, I think the new Pixies make some good music. I listen to a lot of it these days and when it’s good, I prefer it to most of the new stuff I’ve heard this year. When it’s bad, it’s as forgettable as last year’s album by Rainbow Chan. I think it’s generally more good than bad, but I recognize it’s a minority opinion.

6. Another 80s band I enjoy is Japan; Tin Drum is a killer album of moody, percussion-heavy new wave. There isn’t too much else like it, maybe because the band was already falling apart as it came together. A short while after it’s release, Japan split up.

When they got back together a few years later, they released a one-off album as Rain Tree Crow. It’s not as good as their earlier work, but it’s not the same music either. There was a different approach to writing and performing it, so David Sylvian and company chose a different name.

I think there’s a lesson there for Black, Santiago and Lovering. It’s not that their new music is bad, it’s that it doesn’t really fit in with the canon. Critics can’t divorce their past with the band when looking at the new music. And as a result, it pales in comparison, as does everything else when compared to the fun new music we discovered as a teenager. I don’t think making music under a different name would solve all their problems and it’d probably hurt their appeal at the gate, not to mention with casual buyers, but I bet it’d give them better ratings, too.

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