When the Pixies sailed into the sunset in 1993, it felt a little bit like Michael Jordan retiring while everybody else was finally learning how to slam dunk. The quintessential alternative group, the perfect merging of pop sweetness and punk fury, grunge godfathers (and godmother), all but gone by the time In Utero, Vitology, Siamese Dream and Weezer ruled the world.
Lead singer Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis; aka Frank Black) went on to a mercurial solo career, bassist Kim Deal found Modern Rock radio success with The Breeders, guitarist Joey Santiago scored films and drummer David Loverling became a magician…obviously.
Formed in 1986 out of Boston, they released four full-length albums during their original run. It’s probably not an overstatement to say that the template for grunge’s greatest pop ambitions is drawn across this discography: the loud-quiet-loud dynamic; the arcane lyrics about mutilation, incest and Satan; and most importantly, defiance of punk’s hostility toward the pop hook. Then at the height of the alternative movement and at the point of their greatest success (they opened for U2 during a leg of their 1992 U.S. Zoo TV tour), Black Francis informed his bandmates via fax (how delightfully ‘90s) that the Pixies were no more.
In their absence, and in the increasingly apparent wake of their influence, their legend grew.
In 2004, the Pixies made a triumphant return to stage fueled by their swelling legend and the long-awaited cash-in it warranted. The last ten years have seen them crisscrossing the globe and headlining to audiences on a scale they’d never previously seen. And as a touring unit, on the strength of their original catalogue, they have reaffirmed all the reasons they are held in such high regard.
At this very moment, the Pixies are probably as popular and famous as they’ve ever been. Their song “Gigantic” (more than likely inspired by a black guy’s enormous penis), was quite recently used in a delightful commercial for iPhone. And after 23 years, the band returned to the studio this past summer to record a new full-length. Though Kim Deal left midway through sessions to focus on the Breeders, Indie Cindy comes out today. We’ll review the new record later this week. But before we get to that, here’s everything else:
If there is a Ground Zero for alternative rock, it’s probably this record. Black’s high snarl and idiosyncratic songs about maiming and mental instability come hot and fast, many clocking it at under 2 minutes. Kim Deal’s dreamy Riot Grrrl harmonies, Joey Santiago’s buzzing, surf leads and perhaps most importantly, Subpop mastermind Steve Albini’s production, result in an album so urgently ahead of the curve that you can’t believe it was made in the same year as Poison’s “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn.” What makes Surfer Rosa so important, even more than the playful rage and lyrical oddness, is the out-of-left-field accessibility of it all. This is punk without fear of rejection, where post-CBGB vocals yowl about weird shit over candy hooks. Just a few years hence, bands like Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins, PJ Harvey and Dinosaur, Jr. would go out of their way to admit they’d been ripping their moves from Surfer Rosa.
Key Tracks: “Bone Machine,” “Gigantic,” “Where is My Mind?”
Their full-length debut made the Pixies indie stars. They double down on their sophomore effort, which moves their noise-pop confection into broader sonic space. Doolittle is just a touch more accessible than its predecessor and more varied. Black Francis is as neurotic and disturbed, but Gil Norton’s production is brighter, lighter and hookier. Certainly (thankfully) moments of unhinged lunacy abound. But Doolittle is, start to finish, the easiest Pixies record to digest. For every breathless freakout, there is a moment of equal infectiousness. Doolittle is the Pixies moment of pop stardom that never was.
Key Tracks: “Wave of Mutilation,” “Here Comes Your Man,” “Monkey Gone To Heaven”
Aside from being two years early to the alternative party, tensions within the band would keep the Pixies from achieving the success reserved for those they influenced. Particularly, the story goes that Black Francis was increasingly jealous and insecure over Kim Deal’s popularity. Likewise, after two years of touring, all four band members were pretty tired of each other. They took a brief hiatus, during which Deal formed the immediately acclaimed Breeders with former Throwing Muse, Tanya Donnelly. The Pixies’ third record would be the first, it bears noting, to feature no songs composed by Deal. It probably also didn’t help tensions that most critics liked the Breeders’ debut, Pod, better than Bossanova. And the reality is that Bossanova is a few shakes short of classic. But it once again shows Francis pushing the band into new sonic territory, replete with surf guitars and references to interplanetary space travel. It may also bear noting that it’s the least creepy album in the band’s catalogue, relatively absent as it is of references to mutilation or molestation.
Key Tracks: “Velouria,” “Allison,” “Havalina”
Like its predecessor, this album’s best songs are better than the record as a whole. But the best of what is here is essential. Though the band is in a state of decline—its waning enthusiasm nearly evident at points on this record—their fourth would be their most ferocious. According to the band, the fact that Ozzy Osbourne was recording in a neighboring studio would inspire a louder approach. With Trompe Le Monde, the Pixies were finally right in the thick of the alternative boom. Two months after this album’s release, Nevermind hit the shelves and even as the Pixies bickered their way into nonexistence, their legacy of influence would be assured in perpetuity.
Key Tracks: “Alec Eiffel,” “UMass,” “Subbacultcha”
When You Get a Chance:
Come On Pilgrim (1987): The 8 track EP that launched the band, an important document that also happens to be quite listenable.
Live in Minneapolis (2004): A perfect encapsulation of their thundering return to the touring circuit and their continued power and relevance as a live act.