Surfer Rosa (4AD/Rough Trade, 1988)
Doolittle (4AD/Elektra, 1989)
Bossanova (4AD/Elektra, 1990)
Trompe le Monde (4AD/Elektra,1991)
Death to the Pixies (4AD/Elektra, 1997)
Pixies [Purple Tape] (spinART, 2002)
Wave of Mutilation: Best of Pixies (4AD, 2004)
Live in Minneapolis, MN (Disk Live, 2004)
Minotaur (4AD/Elektra, 2009)
One of the best bands to come out of the alt-rock era, the Pixies—frontman Black Francis, bassist Kim Deal (Mrs. John Murphy), guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering—forged a distinct (and distinctly tuneful) sound based on dissonant guitars, well-placed noise and the sweet-and-sour interplay between Deal's soothing croon and Francis' agitated voice. The band continued to attract hordes of new fans even after breaking up in 1993, such that their 2004 reunion shows were a smashing success.
When most bands send out demos, they include three or, at most, four songs. The Pixies crammed 17 onto their legendary "Purple Tape," and eight of those tracks became their debut, Come On Pilgrim. The Boston quartet, still figuring itself out, was definitely onto something: Black Francis jitters and yelps in English and a little Spanish, Deal chimes in sourly, Santiago plays like a punk raised on Ennio Morricone and flamenco, and drummer David Lovering puts the pedal to the floor. The tape's other nine tracks (including a cover of "In Heaven," from the movie Eraserhead) finally surfaced 15 years later as Pixies, serving as evidence that the band had written its biggest hits, Doolittle's "Here Comes Your Man" and Trompe le Monde's "Subbacultcha," before anyone had heard of the band.
Steve Albini, not yet an alt-rock household name, recorded the unstoppable Surfer Rosa, honing the Pixies' sound to scalpel sharpness. The songs are harder and, in places, more fragmented than Pilgrim's, but incredible tunes poke out from behind the wall of smashed bottles and rusty needles. Black Francis sounds genuinely insane as he giggles at the top of "Broken Face," and Deal comes into her own with "Gigantic," a joyful, twisted anthem about childhood voyeurism that became a college-radio standard.
The first half of Doolittle is an alt-rock landmark, years ahead of its time and a model for later bands, so it's a shame that the second half falls off. But for 20 minutes, the Pixies can do no wrong. Francis screams his lungs out on the opening, the Luis Buñuel tribute "Debaser," then scarily shrieks the chorus of "Tame." The band radically contracts song structure wherever possible and employs the quiet—verse/explosive—chorus formula three years before everyone else figured out how to copy it. "Here Comes Your Man" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven" strip away the Pixies' bristles to bare their bizarre, masterful songwriting.
Bossanova is a serious stumble, with inappropriately bombastic production and songwriting that suggests the Pixies had finally started listening to their college-rock contemporaries (not a good thing). "Is She Weird" and "Velouria" have held up surprisingly well, but that's about it. The band's farewell, Trompe le Monde, on the other hand, rocks—it's not the kamikaze punk-rock attack of Surfer Rosa (aside from the Roman candle that is "Distance Equals Rate Times Time"), but Francis and Santiago pull out one massive guitar riff after another. (The riff that powers "U-Mass" is as stupid as any ever written, and as effective.) Black Francis' outer-space obsession doesn't explain the Jesus & Mary Chain cover, "Head On." Don't try to figure it out; just bang your head.
Death to the Pixies collects a disc's worth of singles and album tracks, which lose something out of context, and appends a fairly dull live set from 1990. Released to cash in on the band's 2004 reunion, Wave of Mutilation improves on the earlier best-of a bit—the almost-chronological approach serves it better, and the B side "Into the White" is an inspired inclusion. That year the Pixies mounted a comeback tour and played the Coachella Festival; Live in Minneapolis showed they hadn't lost a step. The group wanted to capitalize on their momentum with a new studio disc, but Deal vetoed the plan out of fear that substandard material would tarnish the group's flawless legacy. In 2009 they launched a Doolittle 20th anniversary tour and released Minotaur, a gigantic five-CD, six Blu-Ray, six DVD collection that comes with a 54 page book. Retailing for $230.49, this gorgeous set is obviously for extreme hardcores.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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