It’s hard to describe “Hey” because it’s a song without any real direct descendants or antecedents. There’s really only one long verse that gets interrupted by a chorus as well as what would normally be called a guitar solo, only here it’s more akin to a six-stringed lead vocal part. However you classify it, it’s a master’s course in creating tension and twisting song dynamics. This is the apogee of Frank Black’s debauched songwriting period as he yelps, grunts, and occasionally sings his way through a tale of missed connections and, of course, whores. Lots of whores. Kim Deal’s bass matches his spare guitarwork note-for-note while her backing vocals on the chorus, as always, give the lyrics color and depth that Black alone couldn’t muster. But it’s Joey Santiago who really takes things to the next level. Throughout the verses, his daringly simple leads and bent notes give the song expressive texture, but it’s the guitar break in the middle where he steps into the spotlight and makes it feel like his instrument is singing without words. “Hey” feels like a delicate tightrope walk where everything has to fall exactly into place just so, and when you get to the end and see that they’ve made it, the tension releases and you’re all the more impressed.
(Surfer Rosa, 1988)
Featured prominently in that manifesto for every angry, wanna-be existentialist teenager, Fight Club (no offense, we’ve all been there), “Where Is My Mind” is doomed for many to be the one Pixies song that people who don’t like the Pixies like. While that’s a criminally unjust fate for a song this good, it’s not hard to understand the song’s mass appeal. Built around a catchy-yet-wistful chord progression (one that Weezer would later successfully ride to chart success on “Say It Ain’t So”), the mixture of scratchy acoustic guitar and Santiago’s piercing electric backing land perfectly in an aural sweet-sport. When you add in Kim Deal’s cooing backing vocals, the atmosphere is unbeatable—at once both ragged and lush. Little production touches like the quick-cut intro and the instruments dropping out a few bars before Deal’s vocals were happy accidents that made the song seem charmingly ramshackle rather than slick and distant. The lyrics are typical Frank Black stream-of-consciousness stuff about a time he went scuba diving in Puerto Rico. But he manages to turn that relatively simple experience into a meditation on the feeling of confusion and vertigo that everyone feels about their life every now and again. It makes no sense but at one time or another we’ve all had our feet in the air and our heads on the ground and asked ourselves, “Where is my mind?”.
(available on Complete B-Sides)
With two studio versions and an officially-released live version, “Vamos” is the old warhorse of the Pixies catalog, changing as necessary to suit the circumstances. Perhaps that’s because it’s the quintessential Pixies song—there’s singing in Spanish, a ridiculous guitar solo, and lyrics that veer wildly from obscene to nonsensical. It’s become a live favorite because it’s the closest the band gets to jamming. The version on Surfer Rosa featured Steve Albini stitching together a guitar solo from various takes (some looped in backwards) and ever since then, Joey Santiago has tried to match that sound in live performances. The live version released as a “Here Comes Your Man” b-side finds the band stampeding through the song like they’re double-parked until the solo hits, at which point Santiago turns on his guitar with the fury of a Mongol horde. He punches the body, slams the amp, wrenches switches, and even runs a beer can along the neck until he’s exhausted the sonic possibilities of his instrument and the song can resume. One of the most underrated guitarists in rock history (yeah, I said it), “Vamos” exists as a showcase for Santiago’s prowess with six strings and a fretboard, a prowess he continues to demonstrate a quarter-century after the song was first written.
It starts innocently enough with a few plodding bass notes but as soon as it gets going in earnest, “Debaser” is the kind of song that grabs your attention and doesn’t let go. It’s one of the hookiest pop songs the band every put to tape (there’s a tambourine and everything) but it’s also laced with a lacerating guitar that agitates the mix and ensures that it never feels too sugary. Written about Luis Buñuel surrealist short film, Un Chien Andalou, Black found the perfect totem for the Pixies’ unique brand of outré songwriting. Buñuel called his film “a violent reaction against… the artistic sensibility and… reason of the spectator” and that’s pretty much the feeling of the song. I’m not sure if “debaser” was actually coined by Black, but it perfectly encapsulates the feeling of wanting to take everything that is good and burn it to the ground. Of course, this being the Pixies, it’s still being played for laughs as Black tells us he’s slicing up eyeballs then chuckles like a madman afterwards, but that doesn’t negate the utter exhilaration being expressed. Kim Deal’s soft vocals that answer Black’s turn this from a simple chorus to a scientifically-engineered ear worm. “Debaser” is one of the most giddying moments in rock history—it’s joyful and profane, mystical and meaningless in the most addictive way possible.
(Surfer Rosa, 1988)
If ever there were an aptly-titled song, “Gigantic” is it. It’s a massive chunk of alt-rock history, a gargantuan heap of sex and guitars and feedback and debauchery. The song started as just a riff and a title when Frank Black handed it over to Kim Deal to work on. She took it home and started brainstorming lyrics with her then-husband John Murphy. After watching in Crimes of the Heart (of all things), she decided it was going to be about having sex with a black man. Murphy threw in the phrase “big black mess, hunk of love” and the rest practically wrote itself. It’s a song that’s looking for trouble, from Frank Black’s first moans to the way Kim whispers seductively in your ear, to the tugging bassline that seems to go straight for the hips. It’s the most effective example of the Pixies’ famous soft-loud-soft dynamic as the verses tease and toy with the listener, guitars in the background grating like they’re champing at the bit before finally ripping into the massive chorus. “Gigantic! Gigantic! Gigantic! A big big love!” Deal howls, the sly grin on her face practically audible as the band pile drives the song’s massive riff harder and louder into the ground, chaos swirling all around. Deal’s song was the most iconic the band ever made, the sound prurience sung sweetly and put through a feedback-laden wringer in a way no one had ever done before. You might as well call the Pixies alternative rock’s Helen of Troy because this was the song that launched a thousand bands.