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Although David Byrne’s sense of the absurd clearly influenced the Pixies’ songwriting, they never really sounded much like Talking Heads, at least until “Dig for Fire”. It sounds like nothing else in the Pixies discography—it was the first time they’d used a drum machine, almost wistful guitar work, and, most surprising, it sounded like it might actually have had something to say. Of course, the whole thing eventually devolved into the the kind of confusion and guitar acrobatics that Pixies fans were used to, but there was something more there. It’s perhaps too neat to read the song as an ode to the underground but at the same time, hearing lines about people “looking for the mother lode” only to turn it down because they’re “diggin’ for fire” certainly plays into that narrative all-too-easily. Ultimately the chorus has just enough ambiguity for anyone to write themselves into it. We all have one life to live and who wouldn’t want to spend it “diggin’ for fire”?
When you think of the Pixies, you don’t think of string sections and yet, that’s exactly what they brought in for “Monkey Gone to Heaven”, one of their heaviest songs both sonically and lyrically. Never really a political band, this is perhaps the closest they ever got to a message song. As he was wont to do, Frank Black used the sea as his canvas for human failings, singing about “An underwater guy who controlled the sea / Who got killed by ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey.” Later he sings about “a hole in the sky”, obliquely referencing the depleting ozone layer. Of course, this being the Pixies, there are still a few left turns along the way to any sort of moral and what makes “Monkey Gone to Heaven” so memorable are those nuggets of weirdness. No Pixies concert is complete without a crowd singalong proclaiming “If man is five… then the devil is six… and if the devil is six then God is 7!” Why the random bit of Hebrew numerology? Who’s to say. What does “This monkey’s gone to heaven” mean? No one really knows, but Doolittle‘s image of a haloed primate has become one of the great pieces of Pixies iconography, so what difference does it make?
(Trompe le Monde, 1991)
Especially in America, the Pixies were a band for art students and hipsters. And yet neither Frank Black nor Joey Santiago had much stomach for college and, in fact, some of their best songs are ones that skewered the cool kids, such as “Subbacultcha” and, of course, “U-Mass”. Built around a nasty four-chord riff, “U-Mass” is pretty much three minutes of satirizing college students interspersed with throat-shredding and string-twisting musical catharsis. In fact, after spending a whole verse mocking self-serious college students and things they hold dear (“Like capitalist / And communist / And lots of things you’ve heard about”), Black barely pretends to phone in a second verse in a rush to get back to the chorus, saying “And here’s the last five” before returning to dementedly screaming “It’s educational” until the word had been contorted almost to the point of breaking. It’s good to know that anyone fed up with the bullshit surrounding school, students, or organized academia of any kind will always have an anthem of their own.
(Come on Pilgrim EP, 1987)
Rhythm guitar isn’t generally an instrument that gets a lot of love but, as a Lou Reed fan, Frank Black surely knows that it can make or break a song. A lot of early Pixies songs feature Black thrashing away on an acoustic guitar while Santiago’s leads run wild, giving the proceedings the feeling of unhinged, maniacal pop. None do this more effectively than “Nimrod’s Son”. As he rifles through guitar chords like they’re going out of style, Black bellows a first-person account of crashing his motorcycle only to be told by his own ghost, “You are the son of incestuous union”. The rest of the song is a blur of imagery that would land most people on a psychiatrist’s couch. Of course we know it’s all just a piss-take as Black ends every chorus with a bizarre chuckle of “The joke has come upon me”. No one feels cooler than the first time they’re let in on the joke—it means another Pixies fan has been born.
Surf music was not exactly the hippest influence to be throwing around in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s alt-rock scene. But the sensual, suggestive contours of the early ‘60s surf songs were clearly a major influence of the Pixies from the get-go. Many view 1990’s Bossanova as the beginning of the end for the Pixies because it lacked the ruthless pacing and subject matter of earlier albums. But for those willing to give it a shot, there was a lot to like in the band’s willingness to stretch its creative legs. “Ana” was the group’s most direct homage to classic ‘60s surf rock, with its meandering guitar lines and understated production. But Frank Black was never a strict traditionalist and slipped in a few curveballs starting with the acrostic lyrics spelling out “S-U-R-F-E-R” that feel almost meditative. Almost as if using words to conjure up the kind of mirage that surfy instrumentals aim for, Black’s lyrics about “undressing in the sun” and “rid[ing] the wave” feel like poetry cooked up by a blazing LA sun. Miles away from Surfer Rosa‘s merciless sonic assaults, “Ana” showed the world that the Pixies were anything but a one-trick pony.
// Notes from the Road
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