It’s so tempting when faced with a Best Of album like this to start a review with the old cliché, “the Pixies need no introduction…” The weird thing is that they do need an introduction, as I’ve discovered over the past few weeks. Either that or I’m the only person who’s had younger and/or not-savvy-with-the-ways-of-alternative-music friends asking him why there’s been such a fuss over the Pixies reforming.
So, to the uninitiated, here’s the deal. The Pixies. Five studio albums, 1987-1991. No Pixies, no Nirvana, no alternative music revolution – nothing like it is now.
That’s the short version. A thorough examination of the Pixies’ legacy involves mentions of The Breeders, Frank Black, Steve Albini (leading to PJ Harvey, Bush and The Auteurs) and Gil Norton (leading to Terrorvision, Feeder and Foo Fighters). Do you think they’re important yet?
But why? Well, the Pixies ran with a baton so ably, but inadvertently, handed over by the likes of Hüsker Dü. They were one of those rare things – a band that could be loved by indie kids and heavy rock fiends without either fan group having to take a “cool” transplant. They oozed melody for the former and stacks of visceral guitars for the latter. And as for their image, what image? They were about the music, pure and simple.
This protracted preface to a review of Wave Of Mutilation is a necessary evil because standing in a fully objective light, this Best Of collection is completely superfluous. Not because the Pixies don’t deserve one – boy, they do – but because they already have one – Death To the Pixies – the limited edition of which featured nigh on 40 songs. And there’s a Complete B-Sides set too.
Still, Wave Of Mutilation is here and if it brings the Pixies to a new audience then job done, quite frankly. Newcomers can initially wonder at how a band producing poorly recorded punk rockabilly like Nimrod’s Son in 1987 could go on to the belting drums, angular straining guitars and what should have been a patented soft-loud-soft formula the year after. Mr Albini perhaps? Whatever, the likes of Bone Machine and Where Is My Mind? heralded a new dawn in alternative guitar music. The world just didn’t know it then.
Gil Norton brought a more explicit melodic sheen into the mix, and in doing so helped turn Monkey Gone To Heaven and Debaser into enduring classics. The former, in particular, never ceases to wear out its welcome and is perhaps the best example of Black Francis’ trademark vocal switch from near-talking to sweet singing to crazed preacher-style yelping (“If the Devil is 6… Then God is 7!”).
1990’s Bossanova saw the Pixies moving into more ethereal territory. Velouria still sounds great with Francis’ sweet vocal underpinned by haunting harmonies courtesy of bassist Kim Deal, while guitars chug and firecrack mercilessly away in the background.
Swansong Trompe Le Monde, meanwhile, was a heavy beast, with Planet Of Sound being the best example of how the Pixies never lost their choruses and melody in among the louder-than-loud guitar thickets.
Of course, by this point the band was falling apart, and later that year Kurt Cobain and co would take the baton themselves and run off into a successful, but ultimately sorrowful distance.
It is said that the Pixies split up because Kim Deal wanted to write more of the songs. Now that the Pixies have reformed, they should let her. The one Pixies song here that she did co-write – Gigantic – is a stunning piece of US indie-rock and has a simply, erm, gigantic chorus.
Nevertheless, although Deal’s follow-up band, The Breeders, briefly threatened to scale the creative highs of the Pixies (remember Cannonball?), the fact is that neither this nor any of Black Francis’ / Frank Black’s solo material consistently got close. Kim Deal and Black Francis need each other and they also need the one-man guitar effector that is Joey Santiago and the solid drumming of Dave Lovering. The question is, does the world still need the Pixies? Let’s hope so.