Counterbalance No. 96: Pixies' 'Surfer Rosa'

All I know is that there were rumors that the 96th most acclaimed album was into field hockey players. Pixies' 1988 breakthrough is this week's Counterbalance. And then the next thing you know . . .


Surfer Rosa

Label: 4AD
US Release Date: 1988-08
UK Release Date: 1988-03-21

Mendelsohn: The Pixies have four full-length albums but when you really get down to it, the only two that really matter are Doolittle and Surfer Rosa. We hit Doolittle a while back and spent most of the conversation fighting each other over who could say the most nice things about the Pixies. Do we have anything nice left to say, Klinger? I have a couple things. But first, let me get this out in the open.

I have always viewed Doolittle and Surfer Rosa as sister records. Doolittle was the hot, younger sister who was crazy and fun with just enough weirdness to make life interesting. Surfer Rosa is the older sister who is definitely cute but has too many face piercings and shaved half of her head but still dresses kind of slutty and I really want to go up and hit on her but my friend keeps telling me that she has a violent streak and that he heard, this one time, that Surfer Rosa stabbed a dude because she found his pickup line to be insulting. That's kind of how I view this record. There are some great things on it and then there are some downright strange things that are hard to reconcile. Whenever those hit I find myself wishing I was hanging out with Doolittle, even though Surfer Rosa is older, hipper, and can buy beer. And then "Gigantic" kicks in and I'm all like, "Let's go make some bad decisions together."

How would you anthropomorphize this record, Klinger? Cute, crazy girl with a sadistic streak? Fun drinking buddy with a penchant for breaking bones? Homeless person shouting at their own shadow?

Klinger: All that and more, Mendelsohn. I hadn't really spent that much time developing that intimate of a relationship with Surfer Rosa, but everything you've said here makes perfect sense. Surfer Rosa has long been a puzzlement to me, a crazed lone figure of an album, clothed in coarse camel's hair, eating locusts and wild honey and prophesying to a generation of vipers that the wrath was yet to come.

As I've been listening to this album over the past few weeks, I've come to realize just how much there is to hear. Lyrically, of course, Surfer Rosa is a very bleak album, with references to incest, molestation, and violence throughout. But it's also such a dizzying whirlwind that it's been difficult to grasp its entire scope (especially in the pre-Internet days when lyrics weren't readily available). So when I was younger I focused on the more easily accessible tracks like "Tony's Theme" or of course "Gigantic". Of course, that’s easier to do when you’re younger and maybe more callow. As a 43-year-old, I find it more difficult to overlook the pain that’s woven throughout those lyrics and just enjoy the wild ride for what it is, but back then I could just let it wash over me.

Mendelsohn: And wash over you it will—starting with the hard-hitting "Bone Machine" and Kim Deal's rolling bass, all the way through the dual guitar work from Joey Santiago and Black Francis on "Brick Is Red", which might very well be one of the best rock songs ever written until Francis and Deal start to caterwaul off key and off beat (and just as soon as my brain adjusts, the song ends). But then, that exemplifies what the Pixies were all about. They wrote great rock songs that seemed to spring fully formed from some unknown fount, proceeded to pack them full of noise and weirdness and then they quit mid-verse (or career as it may be).

When we talked about Doolittle, we had some idea of where the Pixies were coming from, knowing that they were refining the sound that they had worked out in Surfer Rosa and their early EPs. Now that we are on Surfer Rosa, I find myself wondering how the Pixies got to the sound that launched a thousand grunge bands. You had mentioned to me last week, in an off-hand manor, something along the lines of the Pixies having no precedent, no touchstones we could easily trace their sound to. How does that happen, Klinger? Is this band merely an anomaly? A random mutation in the DNA sequence of the past five decades of rock 'n' roll?

Klinger: I'm not ruling anything out until I see the lab results, but all signs point to Pixies as being pretty close to a sui generis rock band. I've been paying extra close attention here, listening for sounds or chords or noises that I can trace back to something familiar. One thing I keep coming back to for some strange reason is the blues. To my ears, Joey Santiago's lead guitar shares DNA with the slide work of Elmore James (even though I don't think he's even playing slide—there's just something slippery about the way his heavily distorted tone so effortlessly fades into feedback). And it's hard to miss the Jimmy Reed by way of T. Rex intro to "Cactus". But maybe I'm just letting the album's cover put sultry, earthy images in my head.

Clearly the Pixies were also drawing from the jaggedy-edged guitar sounds of post-punk groups like the Gun Club, Mission of Burma, or Wire. But even as Surfer Rosa comes across as more unhinged that any of those groups, there's still a tunefulness that makes these songs far more accessible. (The major chord-minor chord switcheroo coming out of the chorus of "Where Is My Mind" is straight-up Merseybeat, and it's nearly as jarring as any blast of discord.)

Black Francis' keening, jabbering lead vocals are so central to this album (although Kim Deal's presence here is an absolutely necessary, uh, counterbalance), that it can be easy to forget that Pixies were a band that was greater than the sum of its parts as any classic rock group. That could explain why it's hard to pin them down, because it's all in the interplay between the members—Black Francis' acoustic strumming mixed with Joey Santiago's yowling feedback-laden electric accents being a noteworthy example, especially in light of Steve Albini's production (and yes, I'm aware that he prefers not to be called a producer -- Whatever). You even hear it in the way that David Lovering's beat on "Something Against You" performs an auditory switcheroo, leading the way for the chord progression to move from a lighthearted '80s-style popper into something seriously sinister.

Mendelsohn: I suppose we shouldn't overlook Albini's production, since without it, this record might not sound near as crisp, and with it these songs get pushed from simply being good to the realm of greatness. Surfer Rosa also seems to be the real start of Albini's career as a highly sought-after audio engineer. The album bears the trademarks -- the low mix vocals, the crisp, live interplay of the studio recording, and the aggressive surge -- that would find their way into so many of the records he would work on down the line as well influencing countless others. Albini's work log is littered with a who's-who of indie and alternative bands.

It just dawned on me, Surfer Rosa might be the perfect storm of a record, a freak Alberta clipper that dumps two feet of snow on the unsuspecting music populace. Although, at the time of its release this record really didn't go anywhere. It wasn't until Doolittle hit that the real respect for Surfer Rosa started to roll in.

Klinger: Funny you should mention that. I was all set to disagree with you, vehemently and possibly obnoxiously. I was pretty sure that Surfer Rosa was very much a part of the college radio scene in which I was ensconced back in the late 1980s, but now that I think about it I can't remember hearing all that much about Pixies until at least the time leading up to Doolittle. Surfer Rosa and the group responsible may well have taken that amount of time to really catch fire. Granted, the college radio station I worked for could have been a provincial backwater, but regardless . . .

What's really astonishing to me is the way that the Pixies have, for nearly 25 years, remained crystallized in people's minds as unassailably great, immediately recognizable shorthand for cool. (The use of "Where Is My Mind" in Fight Club is an obvious example.) Normally in this amount of time you'd expect for there to be some kind of backlash, but even their recent cash grab touring is viewed as a welcome opportunity for the group to reap the rewards of their massive influence. My only question is why hasn't Hollywood figured out that "Tony's Theme" is an obvious choice for the Iron Man soundtrack?

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