McSweeney’s (which I have mixed feelings about, but fuck it, they’re inescapable) ran an amusing article from a Gen Xer ranting about millennials and Gen Y (iGen?) that featured a bit about Cage the Elephant and how the kids are listening to this band when they should just listen to the Pixies. Having little to no knowledge of Cage the Elephant, I can’t say that they ripped off the Pixies the way I can definitely say that Green Day ripped off the Descendents. But I’m not doubting that Cage the Elephant owes something to the Pixies. After all, the Pixies are pretty damn great and were likely an influence on bands I know nothing about, which is a lot considering I stopped paying attention to music after 2002.
This article got me nostalgic; I went to Spotify and added a few choice Pixies’ cuts to my playlists. There were more than a few from their fourth release, Bossanova.
If you ask a Pixies fan (and they tend to be rabid in their fandom) which album is their best, you’ll likely get a rambling response about the impossibility of ranking them, of each effort being a logical progression, or something along those lines. Opinions tend to be split, but if we’re being honest, Doolittle is their best record, though Surfer Rosa is a strong contender. Pixies nerds who wish to be seen as cooler-than-thou will claim Come On Pilgrim is their best effort, though we know better. I’ve never met anyone who thought Trompe le Monde was more than pretty good. I know there are two other records that have been released since the band reformed, but I’m not counting those because I have idea what’s going on with them. Sue me.
I love all five, but I have a weird affinity for Bossanova, a record that seems forever eclipsed by the one-two punch of Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. How to follow those masterpieces?
By the end of the 1980s, the Pixies, for all their obscurity, had already created a fairly recognizable sound: loud/quiet/loud song structures, quirky lyrics that bordered on brilliance, Black Francis’s vocals both melodic and screaming, Kim Deal’s breathy back up singing and down-stroke picked root note basslines, Joey Santiago’s blisteringly strange lead guitar, David Lovering’s precise, anchoring beats (I mean, just listen to the hi-hat work on “Tame”).
But as hair metal waned and grunge awaited, the Pixies were not a band that made sense. They weren’t heavy enough to be metal, nor were they mining angst and ennui to the extent that grunge could claim them. They had no marketable look; really, they looked like they’d met randomly on a bus and decided to form a band. The leader was pudgy and aloof, the lead guitarist could only be counted on to offer non sequitiur nonsense in interviews, and their bassist often barely seemed conscious. The drummer smiled too much for a drummer. Who the fuck were these oddballs?
Bossanova might’ve been the record to put the Pixies more solidly on the map. It was coming out as the word “alternative” was becoming more of a thing, at least in my suburb. We knew of punk and hardcore and loved bands that weren’t featured on MTV, but then MTV got wise and started a show called 120 Minutes that offered misfits like myself a cherished two hours to enjoy outsider music. Thanks to this show, and its pretentious asshole host, Dave Kendall, I lapped up videos from the Butthole Surfers, the Replacements, the Stone Roses, and a slew of bands that would become essential to me. This is where I heard the Pixies. Dave Kendall actually said, before he aired their video for “Velouria”, that this was the first and last time MTV would play it because he found it to be stupid. And it’s hardly an exciting video, but… the BALLS ON THIS BAND. Who else would release a video in slow motion where nothing really happens?
I’d actually heard of the Pixies before then. A punk girl I worked with played me “I’ve Been Tired” from their EP, the song where Black Francis expresses fears of losing his penis “to a whore with disease.” It stuck. But I’d forgotten all about them until Dave Kendall dissed their new video. Dave Kendall… that utter douchebag. If he didn’t like the Pixies, I was duty bound to check them out. Plus, “Velouria” rocks. It’s heavy as fuck and, somehow, simultaneously beautiful.
My job in 1991—mail sorter at PPS Presort service—was miserable. The boss, in an effort to make things more tolerable, allowed the staff to play CDs at work. Each employee had their designated day and time to inflict their idea of good music on the rest of the drones. Thankfully, my boss was an alternative rock junkie hooked on R.E.M. and Elvis Costello. When I chose Bossanova to play, he asked, “Fuck, why didn’t you bring Doolittle?” And that would be the refrain for the rest of the year: every alternahead I knew thought Bossanova was a flop in comparison to the Pixies’ earlier records. There were a few stand out songs, but no slicing up of eyeballs or monkeys going to heaven. And the sound had changed. Too loud, too in your face, too muddy.
There’s something to this. The production on Bossanova isn’t as solid as it was on Doolittle, which wasn’t as solidly produced as Surfer Rosa (hard to top Steve Albini behind the board). Whereas those other records allowed the listener to marvel over Kim Deal’s simple-yet-perfect bass playing and sweet compliment to Black Francis’s madman vocals, Bossanova was all guitars and drums. We know now that Deal and Francis had developed a tense working relationship, and I can’t help but wonder if he oversaw the burying of her in the mix. Whatever the reason, Kim Deal seems barely present on Bossanova. And fuck… the drums sound overproduced and false. Compare the snare sound on “Cactus” from Surfer Rosa to the machinelike 90s style drum sound of “The Happening”. The former sounds menacing and alive; the latter is leaden.
While Bossanova’s production does no favors to the Pixies’ rhythm section, the guitarists make out like fucking bandits. Jesus, Joey Santiago’s best playing may be on “All Over the World”. And for fuck’s sake is there anything as wildly mad as “Rock Music”? Santiago’s guitar anticipates grindcore while Black Francis lays down sloppy chords and throat shredding vocals. There’s some harsh as fuck songs here that allow the twin guitars to make more noise than ever before, as if that were even possible.
Speaking of Black Francis… this was really his first solo album, wasn’t it? It wouldn’t be long before he became Frank Black, killing his band via fax machine and branching off to make a few good solo records and a lot more that I’ve never heard (who can keep up?). And much like his solo records, Bossanova is brilliant in spots but uneven. Also much like his solo efforts, the thematic emphasis is on space and aliens. By the time Frank Black released The Cult of Ray, many of us were wondering if he was lost in orbit. The obsession starts here, and it mostly works. “Velouria” is (I’ve been told) a love song to an alien. So is “Ana” I think. “Ana”, by the way, is maybe the prettiest thing the Pixies have ever recorded. It’s so good it redeems “Is She Weird”, a song I’ve never cottoned onto.
So yeah, Frank Black—UFO obsessed solo artist—was taking root here, for better or worse. And the better does outweigh the worse. Let’s maybe start at the start, huh?
“Cecilia Ann” kicks off the record. An instrumental cover of a kick ass song by the Surftones, this is the song most fun to drive to at night when there’s no traffic and the radar detector says All Clear.
Next comes the before mentioned noisy “Rock Music”, which is a top ten favorite Pixies song, though I may be alone there. In 1991, I thought nothing of kicking off a record with an instrumental and following it with a piece of unapologetic chaos, but it seems pretty ballsy to me now. And I’m sure the song is supposed to be ironic, or maybe I’m just supposed to experience it ironically, but I don’t. I sincerely turn it to ten and scream along.
“Velouria” is next, which, as I’ve stated earlier, is a great song. One of the best on the record. I love it so much that I told my 1991 girlfriend that if I ever had a daughter I’d name her Velouria. That relationship didn’t last.
At 1:17, “Allison” is a punchy number that doesn’t wear out its welcome. Would that I could say as much about “Is She Weird”. I said it once, but I’ll say it again: this song borders on terrible. Not so bad I hate it, but tossed off and overlong even at a mere 3:01. One idea stretched too far. Hey, they all can’t be “Cactus”.
“Ana” is short for anagram. Look up the lyrics and you’ll see it. Actually, wait, this is more an acrostic poem. But I guess “Acro” wouldn’t have been as good a title. Oh and yeah, I stand by my earlier statement about this being the prettiest thing the Pixies have come up with, the surf (not really) version of “Wave of Mutilation” being a close second.
I wasn’t fond of “All Over the World” in 1991. Now it’s one of my favorites on the record. I love the springy bits countered by Joey Santiago’s scorching guitar fills, then that whole ending section that comes out of nowhere. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
Remember when there were sides? This ends side one.
Side two starts with “Dig for Fire”. I also loved this one back in the day (as the kids still say, right?), and while it is still a fine song, there’s nothing so compelling about it that I felt, upon this week’s listen, that I’d been depriving myself all these years. I love rediscovery. I love dusting off the CD player and devoting a week to one chestnut from the so-called glory days, but “Dig for Fire” is not that chestnut. “Down to the Well” is. Or it could be. It’s still as menacing as it was 20 years ago. And that line: “her body a rocking chair for my soul” is killer.
“The Happening”… what to say about this song? I never loved it. Still don’t. The exiting bits are nice, but otherwise, this is where me and Space Commander Francis split.
“Blown Away” made a stronger impression on me than I’d expected. In my memory, this was a fine enough ditty without any real connective tissue, but what the hell was I remembering? Not this gem. Love the vocals, love how watery it all seems. Glorious.
“Hang Wire” and “Stormy Weather” are easily my two most skipped Pixies songs, not counting most of side two of Trompe le Monde. “Hang Wire” is okay. Forgettable but forgivable. “Stormy Weather”, on the other hand, is the very definition of filler. I read that Black Francis wrote some of the lyrics on Bossanova on napkins minutes before recording. It definitely shows here.
I rather like the gentle closer “Havalina”, such a nice way to wrap up a record that is often quite harsh and jagged. In fact, I like the way each of the five Pixies records (that I’m familiar with) end. “Elevate Me”, “Brick is Red”, “Gouge Away” (maybe my favorite Pixies song) and “Havalina” are just perfect closers. And yeah, even “The Navajo Know” is a nice exit. This is a band that knew how to make an exit.
And that’s the whole damn thing. Despite what I do for a living, I’m not fond of assigning grades, so I’ll skip the A-F rating and state that Bossanova is a fine record with a few inoffensive yet lesser tracks. Compared to every other Pixies’ release, it’s not the tops, but this is a record every other band in 1990 wished it could have put out. Seriously, what else was out in 1990? Bona drag by Morrissey? I’ll take Bossanova over that any day. The Replacements, one of my favorite bands, put out their last and worst record. No contest there. Sonic Youth’s Goo also came out in 1990. A tough call, but… yep, Pixies beat Sonic Youth every time. Violator by Depeche Mode? Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em? Yeah, I think we see who the clear winner is.