Pixies: self-titled

[1 August 2002]

By Scott Thill

They say that irony is sweet, but I prefer to think of it as painful. So often things that you wish would happen only come to pass many years after they could have truly mattered, could have made a difference. But such thinking tends to lock you into logic loops the likes of which caused the HAL 9000 computer to mercilessly ice his human counterparts in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

For example, if the Pixies would have received the mainstream attention and respect that they deserved the moment they launched the bottom-heavy, fury-soaked missile called Surfer Rosa onto the stale, boring musical landscape of the Republican-dominated ‘80s, would they have remained the almost flawless indie stalwarts that they are now? Would diehards like myself have then scrutinized their every mainstream move—hey, some of us laughed openly when they opened for U2, knowing the audience just wouldn’t get it—watching for any sign of the hated sellout? Would we still have chased them around the world to catch their bracingly dense and powerful live shows? Would we have become suspicious when casual listeners started humming “The Sad Punk” just as often as they hummed “Here Comes Your Man”?

In fact, would we rush out as quickly as we are now to buy spinART’s release of the heretofore-underground, peer-to-peer download staple known as “The Purple Tape”, the Pixies’ infamous demo tape that knocked 4AD’s Ivo Watts-Russell on his ass so hard that he more or less cut and pasted half of it into an album called Come On Pilgrim?

If you’re waiting for an answer, there isn’t one coming. Like I said, irony is painful.

As much as the release of the Purple Tape—now known to music store clerks simply as Pixies—tries to recapture the quartet’s brilliant reconfiguration of music convenion right before it dropped on the few people that were desperately awaiting it, it actually does the opposite: highlight a glaring Lacanian lack. That is, Pixies tells the band’s faithful supporters, spenders and collectors more about what they don’t have than what they do, about what’s missing rather than what’s there. Rather than Black Francis’ pure pop fury, they have Frank Black’s tempered vocals and his Pixies contempt (although it’s cooled lately—he’s finally violated his self-imposed ban on playing Pixies songs in concert). Rather than Kim Deal’s quirky sexiness and dynamic singing, they have Kelly Deal’s addictions and rehabs, as well as one new Breeders album in about a decade. Rather than David Lovering’s pounding rhythms, they’ve got the drummer’s Bill Nye pop-science road show. Rather than Joey Santiago’s fractured surf rock fills, they’ve got guitarists with way more polish and technical ability trying to nail down his clumsy lines even though their skills consistently get in the way.

All of which is to say that the mundane cliché—“Nothing lasts forever”—has once again reared its very ugly head. Or, like a buddy from the band ActionSlacks once put it, “Nostalgia kills”. Why look to the past, when you can open the vaults and finally bathe in the Pixies miscellany and marginalia you were desperately trying to acquire when the band actually existed? Why lament the fact that there are no more concerts to go to, but there is a concert DVD coming out who knows when from 4AD?

Life is not easy for diehard fans. These are the inane questions they ask themselves on a regular basis.

Which brings us to the Purple Tape proper. Look, the fact is that if you pick it up, you’ll be putting some cash into the Pixies’ pockets—that’s reason enough to buy, not download, it. But there are more; historical perspective is one good reason to grab it. Even I didn’t know that Trompe Le Monde‘s chugging wisecrack, “Subbacultcha”, was not only an early tune, but that it also was originally an amalgam of that song and TLM‘s free association jam, “Distance Equals Rate Times Time”. Songs, just like bands, have histories and it’s interesting to watch how Black Francis split “Subbacultcha” in half to maintain both resultant songs’ insistent momentum. Either that, or he was looking for filler.

But seriously, Pixies contains a host of treats, one of which is their best version of David Lynch’s radiator serenade from Eraserhead, “In Heaven”. The sheer volume of Black Francis’ vocals on its third verse outshines other renditions of the song on Pixies at the BBC and The Complete B-Sides—it’s worth the price of Pixies alone. As is the fact that their hidden hit, “Rock a My Soul”—an early jam with the weight of the crowd favorite, “Levitate Me”—is finally seeing the light of day. It’s way better than the god-awful MP3 that was making its way around the Internet a few years ago, and it remains one of the Pixies earlier tunes/B-sides which—like the creepy “Bailey’s Walk” or Kim’s excellent cover of Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You”—inexplicably were left off of their respective full-length releases.

Meanwhile, the songs on Pixies that did make it onto LPs offer the type of works-in-progress cultural appeal that most collectors and fans savor. Presenting some with wished-for glimpses into the creative processes of their favorite band, Pixies illustrates how much they dialed back their pop instincts and increased the noise on songs like “I’m Amazed” for Come on Pilgrim or “Down to the Well”—in my opinion, a truly ass-kicking tune that even Pixies diehards for some reason don’t like much—from Bossanova.

And this is more or less what you’re paying for if you’re a Pixies collector: history. Casual fans could probably care less, and they would be justified, because nothing on Pixies is going to provide a swing vote for them. But once they pick up the Pixies main releases, as well as their peripheral must-haves—like The Complete B-Sides, Pixies at the BBC (which has a rollicking rendition of “There Goes My Gun” that jams much harder than the one on Doolittle) and Death to the Pixies—they’ll come around to Pixies quickstyle, looking to stuff their collection to the breaking point.

They probably won’t be bummed that Frank Black or Kim Deal couldn’t be bothered with putting together any—that’s right, zero—liner notes for the thing. After all, they’ve got brand new bags of their own—why revisit a shared past they couldn’t wait to escape so that they wouldn’t have to talk to each other ever again? Just like the streaker running butt-naked around the UMass campus on the cover of the Purple Tape, that past was filled with a more rambunctious yet subversive spirit. And, after all, it’s the past—available to you at $13 a pop!

Again, irony is . . . oh, nevermind.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/pixies-st/