After being forced into retirement by Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur moaned that, “old soldiers never die, they just fade away”. For better or worse, the same cannot be said of cult rock bands. It may have started with Big Star in 1993 but recent years have seen an absolute torrent of bands whose influence far outpaced their sales return to bask in their newfound popularity. Mission of Burma, the Feelies, My Bloody Valentine, the Dismemberment Plan and now even the beloved Replacements have all reunited to reap the long-overdue waves of adulation but few reunions were as big as the Pixies. If you had to pick one band that defined the sound of modern alternative rock ‘n’ roll it would be hard to do better than the Boston quartet, which could count the likes of everyone from Nirvana to Radiohead to Weezer as not just fans but acolytes. Their first new shows were met with euphoria from old followers and recent converts alike. Yet, after a few laps around the reunion circuit playing nothing but the old hits, the reborn Pixies were starting to embarrass some of their old fans. Without new material the group risked becoming its own cover band – something had to give.
The first rumblings of a serious return to the studio came earlier this summer when, a mere two weeks after it was announced that Kim Deal had left the group, they dropped a new song, “Bagboy”. This was an emotional roller-coaster for fans, as the departure of Deal might have seemed a death knell for the group and yet, here they were, releasing their first new music since 2004. For fans torn between loyalty to the old bassist and a desire to hear new music most likely found little relief after hearing the new song. “Bagboy” was an impressive new outing for a group whose only output since the first Bush administration had been an (admittedly thrilling) Warren Zevon cover and a lame song originally written for Shrek 2. Without feeling re-hashed the new release was an unmistakably Pixies-sounding track with drum machines straight out of “Dig For Fire”, Frank Black’s angry barking, wailing guitar from Joey Santiago and cooing backing vocals that had many people initially convinced had been recorded before Deal left (in reality Jeremy Dubs provided bass and vocals).
Then, the Tuesday after Labor Day, the band surprised the world again by announcing the immediate release of the first of a series of intermittent recordings entitled simply enough, EP1. Going from greatest hits act to the loss one of its most beloved members to becoming a new, active recording entity is a lot to take in. For most fans however the only question that mattered was simple – will the new music worthy of the name “Pixies”?
Unfortunately, the answer to that question is, if not a resound “no” than, at least a “not yet”. Recorded in Wales with longtime producer Gil Norton, the songs on EP1 contain none of the revelatory brilliance of the group’s original albums, nor even the invigorating kick of “Bagboy”. At the same time, those who worried that the newly Deal-less Pixies would produce a turd along the lines of the Clash’s ironically-titled clunker Cut the Crap that followed the ouster of Mick Jones won’t see their worst fears realized either.
It would be foolish to ask the Pixies to sound as fresh as they did in their first iteration. The revolution they started has come to fruition; they’re no longer in the vanguard. But it’s telling that the reason for the Pixies’ original breakup was Black’s anger at Deal’s desire for greater input in the direction of what he considered “his” band. The new-look Pixies heard on these songs sound much more like a comfortable, Frank Black-helmed professional rock band than the prickly pioneers seething with the probably unhealthy but undeniably gripping mixture sexual tension, anger and jealousy that marked their first act. Indeed, after using Dubs for “Bagboy”, the band turned to Fall and PJ Harvey bassist Simon Archer for the next recording sessions and will be employing Kim Shattuck of the Muffs during their upcoming live dates.
On the EP’s release date the band also premiered a video for “Indie Cindy”, which is easily the strongest song on the record, highlighting both the strengths and weaknesses of the Pixies’ current incarnation. After starting with a laid-back groove reminiscent of some of Black’s solo work, the song employs the kind of turn-on-a-dime dynamic shifts that made the band famous. It starts as kind of an updated take on “Subbacultcha” with its digs at alt-culture, punchy guitars and jagged, associative lyrics (“you put the cock in cocktail, man”). But with the chorus comes the sort of swooning sentiment (“I’m in love with your daughter… indie Cindy, come and carry me”) the band used to reserve for goof-off outings like “La La Love You” or “Debbie G”. Indeed, this is a more mature Frank Black, finding his way without a Deal as a foil or rival and, though it doesn’t fall entirely flat, it does take some getting used to. I mean it’s still pretty hard to accept that there’s now a Pixies song that refers to sex as “making love”.
Lead track, “Andro Queen” is a mystical love song with a watery, surf-meets-outer-space production that would sounded right at home on Bossanova. Rather than Spanish, Black sprinkles some Esperanto into the lyrics, which rolls off his tongue with an alien feeling that’s perfectly suited for the atmosphere. Although this is an undeniably sweet song focusing, like “Indie Cindy”, on regaining a women’s love, if we’re being honest with ourselves, it wouldn’t have stood out on earlier records and at best would have snuck its way onto the end of side 2 of Bossanova. “Another Toe” is more surfy, surreal nautical escapism. Now, instead of snorkeling in the Caribbean now Black is knocking back some drinks, dreaming of Blackbeard and having sex (excuse me, “making love”) on the beach. While there’s nothing wrong with any of those elements, we’re now firmly into b-side-at-best-territory. Finally comes “What Goes Boom”, which makes the best attempt to pick up where the hard rock of Trompe le Monde left off. Unfortunately, the sing-songy rhyming and barely-winking drug references fall just as flat as the song’s generic riffing. Only Santiago’s guitar skittering demonically across the mix saves the proceedings from complete tedium.
It’s going to take a while for people to wrap their head around the New Pixies. For some the loss of Deal will surely be a deal-breaker, and it’s easy to see why – the band’s original story and discography was so unimpeachable that anything following in its wake is doomed to suffer by comparison. But the Pixies were never about perfection. For God’s sake, even Doolittle had “Silver” mucking things up! Instead of dying or fading away, Frank Black, Joey Santiago and David Lovering (plus whomever they stick on bass) have decided to risk their legacy of “perfection” and put something new out into the world. By eschewing the album in favor of self-released EPs they’ve avoided the need to make the next great Pixies record and given themselves some space to find where they go from here. I’m willing to applaud that kind of boldness, even if its first installment is mostly missed steps.