Music

Pixies: EP1

The Pixies reunion finally produces a new record. Unfortunately nothing on EP1 approaches the heights of their previous work.


Pixies

EP1

Label: Self-released
US Release Date: 2013-09-03
UK Release Date: 2013-09-03
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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.

5

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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