Counterbalance No. 59: Pixies’ 'Doolittle'
If man is five, then the devil is six. And if the devil is six, then the Pixies' Doolittle is 59. The 59th most acclaimed album in music history, that is.
Mendelsohn: This is the first time we get to talk about the Pixies? That strikes me as crazy—mostly because almost every rock band to form after 1990 did so with the intent of ripping off the Pixies. I mean, if you want to talk about influential, this quartet wrote the book in the late ’80s and early ’90s and they did it with perfect form: they released a couple of highly acclaimed albums, hit some moderate success, and then imploded before the big time came calling, only to return a decade later to reclaim their throne as elder statesmen (and woman) of alternative rock. I feel like I'm gushing like a teenage girl talking about an older boy she likes, but it's hard not to gush about a record this good, especially since it just seems to get better and better. Am I gushing, Klinger? Should I just stop now?
Klinger: I am going to ask to you to stop gushing, Mendelsohn, but only so I can start. I honestly don't know where to begin talking about this album, so I'll start with this: the Pixies' Doolittle is quite possibly the finest album of the 1980s. It's certainly a cut above every other '80s album we've discussed so far (although I'll count the votes for Remain in Light).
Putting aside its obvious influence, Doolittle represents the individual piece and parts that make the Pixies great all coming into full flower at once. David Lovering is one of the few post-punk era drummers who can actually swing— “Debaser” alone should be proof positive. Joey Santiago's impressionistic guitar flourishes are always in full service to the song. And Kim Deal's maple-and-brown-sugar vocals are the perfect complement to Black Francis' barely contained insanity. And it's all wrapped up in a blanket of pure pop goodness. Even if it had never been heard beyond the ears of a few college radio nerds, it would still have to be hailed as a masterpiece.
Mendelsohn: Everything you say is true and none of it is going to get us anywhere—aside from a game of one-upmanship where we can see who can say more nice things about the Pixies. And believe me, I have a ton of nice things to say about the Pixies. So here we are with this album that we both clearly love that is as well-regarded as anything we've talked about so far, yet the Pixies are anything but a household name. Before they decided to put aside their differences and reunite for the most welcome cash-grab in the history of rock, they were little more than a college radio phenomenon. Why aren't they bigger, Klinger? Their catalog, and especially Doolittle, is littered with rock/pop gems of unrivaled quality. Is it Black Francis' unhinged approach at the microphone? Is it the uncompromising blasts of punk that appear unannounced between the pop tunes? Or are they just a great band who were too far ahead of the curve—destined to be marooned in a sea of hair metal and synthpop?
Klinger: Yes, I could see where you'd be confused. After all, why wouldn't an album whose lead-off track is a graphic allusion to the eyeball-slicing scene in Un Chien Andalou displace Warrant at the top of the charts? I can't imagine why Casey Kasem wasn't smacking his lips at the prospect of playing the album's poppiest number, the jingle-jangly "Here Comes Your Man". After all, most hit singles at that time were about hobos dying in an earthquake, right?
All right, sorry about that. This record's got me all hepped up. I think it's because Black Francis has been screaming at me like a lunatic for about a week straight now. It's a little infectious. But I will grant you one thing—Doolittle is certainly a good bit more accessible than the Pixies' predecessors, Surfer Rosa (1988) and the Come on Pilgrim EP (1987). And that's really what sets the Pixies apart from so many "underground" bands of the time—that willingness to swaddle the record in brilliant pop touches. Most of the songs on this album feature an acoustic guitar bed of rhythm, which creates a textured warmth that plays perfectly off of Santiago's scratching and skronking and wailing. But then, Doolittle's strength seems to lie in tension and contrast.
Mendelsohn: Whenever anyone says Casey Kasem, I immediately think, "Zoinks!" You make a good point though; I guess I just adore this album too much to see that it really isn't Top 40 material. But do you know how different my life might have been if Casey Kasem came on the air in 1989 and said, "Coming in at number one in this week's Top 40 countdown, ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’ by the Pixies"? It might have made my tiny little pre-pubescent head explode. Also, I was nine and found monkeys hilarious.
Doolittle is an exhibition of balance. This contrast that you speak of helped set the stage for an alternative movement that pulled from both sides of the aisle—the quiet and loud, the pretty and ugly, the sweet and sour. The Pixies put all of these things together exquisitely, much more so than anyone before them or anyone since. Nirvana may have capitalized on the formula (Kurt Cobain famously even admitted to ripping off the Pixies) but Black Francis and Co. did it best. Songs like "Here Comes Your Man" and "Wave of Mutilation" push the pop envelope, while the burners like "Tame" and "There Goes My Gun" update the punk model. It all comes together on "Monkey Gone to Heaven", a song that they even scored a minor hit with [Well, if by "minor hit" you mean reaching number 60 in the UK, then yeah; that's not even getting into how incidental the Modern Rock Charts were back then.--Ed.]. Personally, I favor "Hey"—the juxtaposition between Francis' caterwaul against Deal’s rolling bass and Santiago's surf-rock inspired guitar in the opening bars is hard to top, until it the guitars get grittier, dirtier, and yet they still sound sweet as honey next to Francis' vocals. Balance is a hard thing to achieve, Klinger, yet this album walks to the tight rope like a crazed Philippe Petit.
Klinger: And yet there's a real sense throughout this album that it’s a controlled burn. The fact that none of the songs on Doolittle are longer than four minutes is testament to that idea. That economy of sound actually reminds me a bit of the Beatles' Revolver for some reason. But in listening to this album, I keep coming back to the idea that the root of this tension and balance between chaos and containment lies in Black Francis' religious upbringing.
During his teen years, young Charles Thompson's family got religion, and I don't mean your friendly neighborhood megachurch with the suburban families gently waving one hand in the air to the poppy praise music. The Thompsons joined the Assemblies of God, a Pentacostal-based denomination where speaking in tongues is an outward sign that you've been touched by the Holy Spirit. It is, by the way, the same denomination that gave us Tammy Faye Bakker and Sam Kinison, if that’s helpful. As Black Francis, Thompson's level of sheer abandon sounds like it comes from the same place as the glossolalia of religious fervor. And I also can't help thinking that it's telling that he is able to use it so masterfully, drawing you in with a whisper, sending you reeling backwards with a howl that seems to come from deep in his soul, then disappearing like smoke—all in under two minutes, in the case of "Tame". We rock nerds talk a lot about the importance of the church in the development of R&B and soul, but I think it's interesting to see how its impact can be felt in other places as well.
Mendelsohn: That's a bit of a revelation for me, Klinger. I had no idea. There is the odd bit of religious reference flotsam and jetsam throughout the entirety of the Pixies catalog, but the whole speaking in tongues things makes a lot of sense. And in a way (are you ready for this blasphemy?), the Pixies are kind of like the Holy Ghost of Rock and Roll: rarely talked about, oft forgotten, but largely responsible for most of the rock and roll that has been made over the past 20 years, filling bands and records with their spirit and influence. In a purely artistic sense, we get to see how good Black Francis and the Pixies were at distilling and disseminating the ideas and sounds that drew them in. All good artists are able to recognize good art and repurpose what they like or find inspiring to fit their needs.
Klinger: I'm going to allow your blatant sacrilege, mainly because I can't find too much fault with your logic. And because the Pixies’ second coming has given us a chance to fully acknowledge their influence. While the Pixies obviously didn't create their music in a vacuum, I have heard them called the last truly original rock group, and I'm also having a hard time faulting that logic. In fact there are times when I think that their influence is a little too pervasive; it's become almost safe to use the Pixies as your template, and what makes Doolittle so great is that it never feels quite safe.