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The once angry Pixies turn sensibly mellow

The Pixies' new album showcases a comfortable avatar of a band that influenced scores of other bands in the 1990s

The Pixies are back with their eighth studio album.

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For a band that has influenced a legion of other musical acts in the 1990s, including iconic ones such as Nirvana, and has been cited as a source of admiration by artists ranging from David Bowie and U2 to Pavement and The Strokes, the Pixies have remained generally underrated. That is not to say that the band did not generate a cult of die-hard followers. It did. And loyal Pixies fans swear by their albums and performances from 1987-91, considered by most of them as the band’s golden years.

Their first full-length album, Surfer Rosa (1988), was a gold album, selling 500,000 copies; their second, Doolittle (1989), was certified platinum, selling more than a million.

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The Pixies were pioneers of a style that was adopted widely by bands in the post-punk era. Typically, Pixies songs were structured with slow, softer verses alternating with loud, explosive and shrieking ones, a pattern that set a trend for other bands of the 1990s. Their lyrics are often abstract but drawn from subjects such as science fiction, incest, violence and surrealism. The word “menacing” could come to mind.

Back with a new album, Doggerel, they are no longer menacing. Pixies 2.0 is a settled in, comfortable avatar of a band that literally influenced scores of other bands in the 1990s. And that’s a good thing.

The Pixies broke up in 1993 and reunited in 2004 but before they could release their first post-reunion album, bassist Kim Deal left the band. Deal was part of the Boston, US-incorporated Pixies’ original line-up, along with frontman, singer and lyricist Black Francis; lead guitarist Joey Santiago; and drummer David Lovering. Deal’s trademark was a simple, no-frills style of playing the bass guitar but one that anchored the rest of the band (Francis’ shrieking howls, Santiago’s feverish guitar riffs and Lovering’s eclectic drumming style that drew from every genre, including jazz and bossa nova). When Deal left, the band experimented with other bassists; the result left some die-hard fans cold.

By 2014, the band had a new permanent bassist, Paz Lenchantin, and resumed releasing new studio albums after a gap of 13 years. But the three post-reunion, post-Deal albums—Indie Cindy (2014), Head Carrier (2016) and Beneath The Eyrie (2019)—never really received the accolades that the band’s early albums had.

So, the reactions to their eighth studio album, Doggerel, were predictable. Many old fans lamented that the Pixies had lost their menacing edge, that they were no longer the angry, agonising and rebelliously shrieking outfit they had been.

In fact, those fans (and a number of critics) are right. In 1988, when Surfer Rosa came out, Francis and Santiago were 23; Lovering and Deal were 26. Three of the current members (Francis, Santiago and Lovering) are either 60 or near that; Lenchantin is 48. All of them are what you could call middle-aged. So, menacing shrieks and angry howls may seem a bit out of place.

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It is true that many ageing bands, including a very famous English one that began in the early 1960s, continue to perform as they did 40, 50 or 60 years ago. The truth is, no matter what their fans (who are also ageing) think, they very often come across as ludicrous caricatures of their past selves, cartoonish even.

The Pixies, on the other hand, have done the ageing thing more sensibly. Instead of trying to reinvent their past, they have refined the style of their early oeuvre.

The 12 songs on Doggerel have been selected from around 40 that Francis wrote over the past couple of years. Of course, they are different from what you heard on Surfer Rosa, Doolittle or even Bossanova (1990) and Trompe Le Monde (1991).

Frankly, it would have been a bit silly if they had continued to make the kind of music they did three decades or more ago.

Doggerel opener Nomatterday opens with robust drum and bass lines and has the same stop-start timing the band popularised. But yes, Francis is not howling angrily. Instead, he is growling—more like a mature old bear than a feral wolf: You know, I know that you don’t really hate me/ But I suppose that I probably irritate you/ And furthermore I know that I can relate to you/ I’ll say I’m sorry in advance for all of my hyperbole/ Don’t waste your time on me/ Don’t waste your time on me.

Elsewhere, the album has songs that are upbeat, such as Haunted House, trippy, such as Get Simulated, and ones on which the band struts its stuff, such as There’s A Moon On. Doggerel can, indeed, be an enjoyable album…but only if you stop comparing it to, say, Surfer Rosa.

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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

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