Back to Black
The long-anticipated Pixies reunion.
When the Pixies last toured, in support of their fifth and final record (1991's Trompe Le Monde), they squabbled pettily, drank heavily, smoked too much dope, and limited their personal interaction to public appearances. The band broke up via phone and fax in 1993, and its members haven't spoken much to one another since. But a decade (and the promise of a check) works wonders, and the newly reunited Pixies are about to set out on a six-month tour that's extensive (and Northerly) enough to do justice to their first great song, "Caribou." If you live in Europe, Canada, Minneapolis, or on the West Coast, you can still get a ticket (on eBay, where pairs were recently fetching £142.00, C255.00, and $625). If not, you might catch them sometime in the fall—that is, if the Pixies remain on speaking terms and their headlining appearance at California's Coachella Festival goes according to plan.
Their ascent had been effortless: Forming in Massachusetts in the mid-'80s, the Pixies followed their big-brother band, the Throwing Muses, onto Britain's chic 4AD label and rose to the top of England's indie charts before signing with an American company or finding an American audience. But their first stateside release, 1989's Doolittle, on Elektra, barely grazed the Billboard charts. In subsequent years, America's mass-market radio stations ignored the Pixies, the mass audience avoided them, and, despite a high-profile gig opening for U2 on the 1992 Zooropa tour, fame eluded them.
And yet the Pixies were remarkably influential: Sonic Youth may have coined the phrase "verse-chaos-verse" to describe their own formula, but it was Pixies frontman Black Francis who perfected the trick of sailing airy, folklike melodies into seas of screams and white noise. "I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies," Kurt Cobain said in 1994, when Rolling Stone asked him about the runaway success of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Seven years later, Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood told British television that "the reason we don't use as much guitar now is there are only a handful of Pixies albums. You can't keep copying them." (Compare the famous scrape of Radiohead's 1993 breakthrough single, " Creep," to Pixie guitarist Joey Santiago's work on Doolittle's"I Bleed.") Of course, a great many bands have done just that—as Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters put it recently in New York Times, "The quiet/loud dynamic that's dominated alternative radio for the last 14 years can be attributed to one and only one band, the Pixies."
The Pixies' arrival coincided with a best-forgotten hair-band explosion, but their aesthetic—based on pastiche, collage, and bricolage—remains in force today. On tour, they were known to play their set-list alphabetically, or in reverse chronological order (starting with the encore). In the studio, their lyrics took the shape of anagrams, sonnets, and haikus. For them, meaning was secondary to sound and syntax, and depth was an illusion—what counted was the meticulous construction of surface attributes: not the stock rock explications of what "our love is…" but the sharp enjambment of
"Our songs are random," Black Francis told interviewers. "I write songs by singing a whole bunch of syllables to chord progressions and they become words."
Captain Beefheart, Brian Eno, and the Fall had conducted similar experiments. They, too, were influential. But the Pixies dreamed of mainstream success; less an art band, they were more of an inspiration to the next generation of aspiring rock stars, and their songs, which never quite cracked the Top 40, helped form the basis for a new musical canon.
At their best, those songs were nasty, brutish, and short: Only 16 of the Pixies' 66 album cuts topped the three-minute mark, but each one relied on sharp juxtapositions of tone and texture. The drummer, David Lovering, played danceable, boom-chicka beats, and Kim Deal's bass lines bounced her next group, the Breeders, straight into MTV's "Buzz Bin." But guitarist Joey Santiago favored darker shadings (a favorite trick was striking the same note on two consecutive strings, then letting them swim slightly, wrenchingly apart), and Black Francis seemed happy to scream his way through melodies that wouldn't have been out of place on a Peter, Paul, and Mary record. Despite the band's East Coast origins, Francis and Santiago were Californian and Filipino respectively, and the surf music they'd grown up listening to lent the Pixies' sound a sense of space, mystery, and B-movie malice. The Spanish influence—a touch of Touch of Evil Mexico—was also a surf-music convention, and it, too, explains how the Pixies became massively influential without breaking out of the very college-rock bubble they'd helped to explode. By setting these opposing tendencies against one another, the Pixies managed to force beauty, noise, craft, and the anarchic impulse through the narrowest of apertures. In the process, they broke rock down to its essential building blocks and built song structures today's bands continue to inhabit.
But those same structures left little room for the Pixies' own resident genius: Today, the artist formerly known as Black Francis performs under stage name Frank Black. (His given name is Charles Thompson.) He's bald, fat, and nearing 40, and he is 12 albums into a solo career of steadily diminishing returns. (The most recent, made with his post-Pixies band the Catholics, was recently dismissed as so much "Midwestern shit-rock.") Are Black's solo records really so bad? Or are the members of Frank Black's non-audience (the entire population of the world, minus the 16,443 people who had bought his last record as of mid-March) missing out on a great second act, just as they missed out on Black Francis the first time around? (I'm firmly in Black's corner, but click on the sound files below to decide for yourself.) Either way, Black's years as a solo artist can't help but inform his playing in the newly reformed Pixies, and anyone shelling out $200 for Pixies tickets would do well to spend the spare change on 1994's Teenager of the Year,1999's Pistolero, or 2000's Dog in the Sand.
When Black's solo projects stand on their own merits—as they do on these records and not a few others—it's because of Black's steadfast refusal to cave in to fans who wish he'd kept them supplied with a steady stream of Pixie songs. Instead, in 1996, Black formed the Catholics and set out to explore conventions the Pixies had so fastidiously avoided. In subsequent years, Bowie, Bolan, Bruce, and Bob began peeking through cracks in Black's chord progressions. He took the country-fried California sound out for a spin and mastered the rock-heroic. Soon, Black found himself writing around the clock and touring incessantly. At home in Los Angeles, he took singing lessons and spent time on the therapist's couch. Last year, in a self-penned press release, he summed up the results: "I'm not interested in your damn brain," the doctor had told him. "Show me your tears!" "And so," Black told his audience, "here they are."
Alex Abramovich has been writing for Slate since 2001. In 2008, Riverhead will publish a history of rock 'n' roll he's been working on for the last four years.
Audio excerpts from, respectively: Pablo Honey © 1998 EMI; Pixies: Doolittle © 1989 4AD/Elektra; Pixies: Doolittle © 1989 4AD/Elektra; Frank Black & the Catholics: Show Me Your Tears © 2003 spinART Records; Frank Black: Teenager of the Year © 1994 4AD/Elektra; Frank Black & the Catholics: Exclusive-EP © 2003 spinART Records; Frank Black & the Catholics: Pistolero © 1999 spinART Records; Frank Black & the Catholics: Dog in the Sand © 2000 spinART Records. All rights reserved. Photograph of Pixies © S.I.N./Corbis.