The Pixies Dilemma

Back in 2004, the descendants of Alternative Nation celebrated the return of the Pixies, perhaps the greatest band to come out of the underground music scene of the late 80’s and early 90’s.  For many of those fans, this was especially welcome because they had grown up well past the band’s heyday, and had figured they would never get the chance to see such a legendary band live, this author included.  I’m not using the term “legendary” lightly either–savvy music fans were well aware of the debt that their favorite bands of the 90’s had to the Pixies and realized the scope of their influence on alternative music from that era.  We discovered their genius when we heard bands like Weezer cover their songs and saw Kurt Cobain name-drop them in numerous interviews, after which we headed to the record store as if we were completing a homework assignment to study up on what helped create our favorite music.

My personal introduction to the band was hearing “Where Is My Mind?” play over the ending of Fight Club, an experience I imagine many others shared.    It was a perfect companion to a film that had just blown my mind, a moment that is unsullied years later even after thousands of people have misinterpreted the movie and turned into some sort of cinematic Bro Bible.  Though the official soundtrack didn’t include the song, it still stuck with me for a long time.

My next experience was when a friend brought along a copy of the Greatest Hits compilation Death to the Pixies for one of our road-trips up I-5.  I was immediately impressed by their cover of “Cecilia Ann”, and was hoping to hear more of this cool surf-rock.  However, the compilation is not set up in a manner really suited to the Pixies novice, though to be fair it does a good job of representing the different eras of their career.  The easier-to-swallow pop songs were mixed haphazardly throughout, and as a result the harder-edged rockers predominated in my mind (it didn’t help that driving on the interstate would cause road noise to swallow up most of the nuances either).  Still, besides the aforementioned “Cecilia Ann”, I remember loving every second of “Debaser” as soon as I heard it.

The song had everything I would come to love about the Pixies: the catchy and smooth leads of Joey Santiago, the whacked-out lyrics and delirious intensity of Black Francis, the (metaphorically) steady hand of Kim Deal to provide the counterpoint, and those driving and energetic drums from Dave Lovering.  The melodies were instantly memorable, and the song said everything that needed to be said in less than three minutes.  Hell, even the lyrics about watching weird movies about slicin’ up eyeballs were appealing to a guy branching out into the more obscure subfields of cinema, and also just being of a juvenile mindset of HEY LOOK AT THIS TERRIBLE THING.

But while the love of “Debaser” was instantaneous, and appreciation for other songs quickly followed (“Velouria”, “La La Love You”, “Monkey Gone to Heaven”, and especially “Here Comes Your Man” (which is so catchy that it boggles my mind as to how it never became a crossover smash)), it would still be time before I would have total adoration for the entire Pixies catalog.  It would take a few listens to appreciate the raucous nature of “Tame” or “Something Against You”, and realize that the genius of the band was how they were both the pop craftsmen of “Wave of Mutilation” and the harsh punks of “Crackity Jones”.  If this were a more pretentious piece, now would be the time to drop some reference to Jungian archetypes or something along those lines, but I’ll just trust you the reader to fill those in as you see fit.

Over the years, my love and respect for the band deepened.  I consider Doolittle to be the greatest album of the 80’s, with Surfer Rosa only a few notches behind, and Bossanova remains a personal favorite (my early love of “Cecilia Ann” and “Velouria” paving the way for years of endless repeated listens probably helped elevate my opinion of that particular album as compared to most of my peers, but fuck them, because it’s a great album top-to-bottom).  Seeing Doolittle performed in its entirety live was one of the highlights of my concert-going experience, one that I am unlikely to forget.

However, after years of touring on the backs of (their admittedly great) previous work, many fans yearned to hear something new from the band.  Sure, it was great to see our old favorites performed live, but we needed more variety, especially considering how closely the songs align with their album versions.  And thus, we have the dilemma–what happens when our expectations of a band have outstripped their abilities?  In other words, fans were soon faced with the lesson that countless others have faced over thousands of years of human history: be careful what you wish for.

*******

Perhaps we were a bit spoiled, considering how Dinosaur Jr. was able to reunite its classic lineup and toss off three fantastic albums that measure up to their early work, and how My Bloody Valentine just last year made the 20+ year wait for a follow-up to Loveless nearly worth it.  Touring behind the same old songs made the Pixies suffer in comparison, and we were eager for something new to replace the diminishing returns of seeing the same material once again.  In response, the Pixies released their first new album since 1991’s Trompe le Monde, with Indie Cindy hitting the shelves two weeks ago.  But where was the celebration this time?

The muted reaction was an understandable response to the drawn-out release of the record, as we heard bits and pieces over the previous months as the songs were released in various EPs.  Some of the initial reactions from fans (and critics) were quite vicious, and the result was that the eventual compilation of the three EPs came and went with little fanfare.  The reviews haven’t been kind, with some publications ignoring it altogether.  All that considered, I’d say that a lot of this intense reaction is misplaced.

Let’s make this clear: Indie Cindy is a decent, but definitely not great album.  There are certainly several issues with this record, many of which bother long-time Pixies fans.  The production is too loud, and the band attempts to do too much all the time instead of letting each element breathe on its own.  Consider how some of the greatest moments from Pixies songs are when an instrument are given a few seconds of spotlight, from the bass in “Gigantic” or “Tame”, to the drum intro of “La La Love You”, to the simple acoustic strums of “Where Is My Mind?” or the broken arpeggios of “Hey”.  Even when everybody comes together, these moments stand out in contrast to the rest of the song.  The lack of a bass presence throughout the album also hurts, as the band didn’t care to flesh out those parts (Joey in a recent interview when discussing Kim’s departure said, “She would have had input, sure, but at the end of the day, a bass part is kind of like a bass part, y’know?”).  While Kim didn’t play the most complicated parts in the world, they did provide an effective counter to the other guitar parts and melodies.  The biggest problem may be Joey’s leads–before, he was a almost surgical in providing concise and memorable melodies, like the descending line in “Velouria” or the bouncy melody in “Here Comes Your Man”.  On Indie Cindy, few guitar lines stick out, and more often than not play out as just an additional layer of sludge on top of ordinary material.  The worst part may be that all these songs are too long–for a guy who once cited Buddy Holly as an inspiration, saying that if two-minute songs were good enough for him, they should be good enough for anybody, it’s disheartening to see an album with songs around three and four minutes each.

All those problems aside, Indie Cindy still is on the whole a worthwhile record and not at all the black eye that its most hardened critics proclaim.  “Greens and Blues”, embedded above, would fit in perfectly with one of the bands more melodic ballads, and features the most memorable melody and guitar lead on the album.  “Blue Eyed Hexe” is a pretty good rip-off of their own “U-Mass”, and is part of a back half of an album that in general bears a closer resemblance to the golden era of the band.  The album overall holds up better with repeated listens, and there isn’t a single song that I would outright skip (though the album doesn’t do itself any favors by opening up with the weak “What Goes Boom”).  In my mind, the album rates about the same as Trompe le Monde, a record that I rarely consider whenever I feel in the mood for some Pixies, and usually only listen to as a reminder that, hey, I should probably do a better job of trying to like this album.  In that regard, Indie Cindy doesn’t stand out as some outlier among a continued line of brilliance, but more of a typical example of a band’s evolution.

It’s interesting that the band has inspired in some such a hysterical reaction; while the Pixies are one of my all-time favorite bands who put out some classic albums, in the end they’re a group that treads in catchy melodies and some fun rockers.  I can see how people create a certain bond with artists, depending on their deeply-seated philosophical beliefs or their fiercely personal lyrics, but these aren’t characteristics that one uses to describe the Pixies.  It’s not as if Elliott Smith or Neutral Milk Hotel decided to change course and start writing jingles for soft drink companies.  Even the band has no idea what their lyrics are about.

I think the real reason why the reaction to Indie Cindy was so intense was not only the intense devotion that many of these reviewers had to a band from their youth, but as a protection against the possibility that the next generation would never understand the Pixies’ brilliance if this album was their first exposure to the band.  While I see some merits to that outlook, in practice it doesn’t mean much.  As I pointed out before, I came to the band from the backdoor, though it was through one of their greatest songs.  But people all the time discover their favorite artists through unconventional means, and yes, sometimes their worst work is the gateway.  The first album I ever bought by The Jam was their mediocre swan song The Gift, because it was cheap and I knew I had to learn about the band.  Years later, I listen to The Jam regularly and The Gift rarely comes up in the rotation of superior albums like All Mod ConsSetting Sons, or Sound Affects.  What’s funny is that many people are now getting their first taste of the Pixies not through Indie Cindy, but through an awful iPhone commercial featuring a terrible cover of their classic “Gigantic”.  Ironically, it would have been far better for everyone if they used a mediocre Pixies album as their entrance point instead.

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