If you’re anything like me, you woke up on New Year’s Day 2014 with a pounding headache, last night’s party detritus strewn around you and news of a new Pixies release in your inbox. You also avoided clicking on it for a while, knowing that the potential for disappointment was high and wishing to spare yourself a letdown from one of your favorite bands. It’s hard to believe that we’d ever get to a place where news of new Pixies songs would ever elicit this kind of trepidation or, God forbid, sheer lack of interest, but it appears that’s exactly what has happened. Welcome to 2014.
In my review of 2013’s EP1, I wrote that “by eschewing the album in favor of self-released EPs [the band has] avoided the need to make the next great Pixies record and given themselves some space to find where they go from here.” Unfortunately, with the release of EP2, it seems increasingly likely that the direction they chose to go is “alt-rock mediocrity”. It’s hard to imagine whom the Pixies think these songs will appeal to, other than corporate rock stations who didn’t have the foresight to play them the first time around but are more than happy to cash in on their cred now. But how many of those even still exist?
This second EP picks up right where the first one left off, with more bland, hard rock riffing in the form of “Blue-Eyed Hexe”. This is even more egregious than even EP1‘s “What Goes Boom”, with the kind of paint-by-numbers cock-rock treatment that will have your ears bleeding before the cowbell intro has a chance to fade. “Magdalena”, on the other hand, offends with its horribly clunky lyrics, which begin, “I needed something to eat / I took a walk down the street” and somehow manages to get even more painfully bland from there. I’m still trying to figure out what to make of “Snakes”, a song about some sort of mythical reptilian plague that’s as confusing as it is boring. It appears that, once again, the best we can hope for is Bossanova-era B-side material via the surfy sci-fi of “Greens and Blues”, which has at least a bit of swaying charm. Even this relative high point still lacks the restlessness and iconoclasm of a truly great Pixies song. Sad to say, there’s not a song on EP2 that sounds like it couldn’t have been banged out by a reasonably proficient group of session musicians.
Although we hoped it wasn’t so, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Kim Deal was an essential ingredient to the band. The absence of her meaty bass anchoring the low end and cooing harmonies are the most immediately apparent signs, but her effect on the band dynamics is equally important. Deal’s songwriting talent, strong personality and fan appeal created a feminine yin to Frank Black’s raging yang. Black has always seen the Pixies as his band, but it seems from a distance that the aggression and (sexual?) tension required to constantly assert that control provided the Pixies with much of their juice. Even in the group’s latter years, as Deal and Black feuded and her songwriting role within the band dissipated, Deal’s presence was the grain of sand stuck in Black’s craw, from which pearls were created.
In the new Pixies 2.0, it would seem that Black has become no less mercurial or domineering. Look no further than the firing of touring bassist Kim Shattuck, news of which was delivered without warning in a phone call from the band’s manager. When Shattuck responded with surprise, Black’s response was a dismissive “whoop-dee-do”. Clearly Black and his remaining band mates are happy enough with the new normal and it’s hard to fault them for wanting to keep the band together, Deal or no Deal. Before the group’s 2004 reunion, Joey Santiago was just making ends meet for his wife and kid with TV soundtrack jobs and occasional session work, while David Lovering was struggling even more as a sometimes-magician. Who would want to deny them a chance to earn a good living off their impressive musical legacy?
And though the band sounded as ferocious as ever in their years of reunion shows, the decision to continue without Deal somehow made the whole endeavor feel more like a cash-in than a celebration of groundbreaking music. Seeing them perform at last September’s Riot Fest was a sad spectacle as the band limped through a medley of new songs and old favorites with all the fire and grit of a spent eCig. Fans and critics can surely accept that the new Pixies will sound different from their first go-round. But seeing this flat, predictable, uninspired simulacrum of a once-great band is a far more bitter pill to swallow. In fact, the greatest indictment of this latest batch of songs is just how anonymous it sounds— the Pixies have conditioned us to be ready for anything except mundanity. I can only hope that they find some sort of creative spark to animate them and fast. As it stand right now, Cookie, I think you’re tame.
// Notes from the Road
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