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The seminal Pixies get a new lease of life

  • A new album from one of alt-rock’s most influential bands sees them evolve with the times
  • The band sounds vibrant, fresh and unafraid to traverse new paths

Black Francis of the Pixies performing in Berlin in 2016.
Black Francis of the Pixies performing in Berlin in 2016. (Photo: Getty Images)

The two songs on the Pixies’ recently released new album, Beneath The Eyrie, which really stand out are both written by bassist Paz Lenchantin. The lyrics of Long Rider and Los Surfers Muertos, the catchiest of the 12 songs on the album, are about Lenchantin’s feelings, thoughts and grief over the death of one of her surfer friends, Desiree. Both songs have the kind of attributes that prompt you to put them on repeat, with Long Rider, particularly, lingering in your ears even after the three-and-a-half-minute-long tune has finished playing.

The influence of the Pixies cannot be over-emphasized. They are, in fact, a seminal band in alternative rock ‘n’ roll’s recent history. They started in 1986 as a quartet whose original members were frontman Black Francis (birth name: Charles Thompson IV) on vocals and guitar; Joey Santiago on lead guitar; David Lovering on drums; and Kim Deal on bass. From the very beginning, the Pixies sounded different. At the core of their unique sound was wide-ranging dynamics—with their songs appearing to be an unusual combination of frenzied, high-decibel punk rock meeting laid-back, slow-paced, guitar-driven surf rock.

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That unconventional blend found wide appeal among legions of other bands during the 1990s, making the Pixies the cynosure among their peers. Several musicians who became more famous than the Pixies have acknowledged them as big influences. When the late Kurt Cobain of Nirvana wrote Smells Like Teen Spirit, he cited the Pixies as his main inspiration. Others, including David Bowie, Pavement, Alice In Chains and U2, to name just a few, have gone on record either with high praise for the band or citing their music as a strong influence.

In recent years, loyal fans of the Pixies have been more ambivalent about the band’s newer albums. Since their debut album in 1988, Surfer Rosa, they have released six more studio albums, with Beneath The Eyrie, which came out on 13 September, being the latest. Die-hard Pixie-heads, however, consider their first four (Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde), all released between 1988-91, their best work.

The band’s history might have something to do with that: By 1993, the band had broken up. Francis had moved on to pursue a solo career; bassist Deal had moved to The Breeders, a band that she co-fronted with her twin, Kelley. And although the original quartet still jammed and toured together sporadically, there were no new records.

Till 2014, when the Pixies released their fifth record, Indie Cindy, after a decade-long hiatus. While the album featured three members of the original group, Deal had been replaced on the bass with Lenchantin. On Indie Cindy, the Pixies attempted to recreate their old sound: the ground-breaking collision of loud versus laid-back, noisy guitars and howling vocals. Critics lauded the effort—partly because the band was already a venerated Holy Grail of indie music—but older fans were less impressed. Indie Cindy was followed in 2016 by Head Carrier, which met with similar lacklustre fan response.

But make no mistake—the band still sounded competent. Lenchantin’s bass was a commendable stand-in for Deal’s; Francis’ vocals were not very different from the way they had sounded in the past; and Santiago’s guitar work was as frenetic as ever. Yet, on these two albums it seemed as if the Pixies were trying too hard—they sounded like they were a band trying to emulate the music of their older, halcyon era.

In 2015, between the Indie Cindy and Head Carrier releases, I watched the Pixies live at New York City’s Beacon Theatre. Singer-songwriter John Grant, whose witty, literate lyrics were often themed on his fight with addiction and the perspective of being a homosexual, opened for the Pixies. By the time they strode on to the stage, the storied art-deco venue was less than full. I found myself in the front row with a motley bunch of loyal Pixies fans—the middle-aged mingled with youth. That night the band played 35 songs, including three encores.

The set list was peppered with some of their finest tunes (Debaser, Hey, Wave Of Mutilation, Monkey Gone To Heaven, and Bone Machine) but also with newer tracks from Indie Cindy. Lenchantin appeared to have slid into the bassist’s role with aplomb and high enthusiasm; and Francis (who, if he wears a suit, can look like a rush-hour middle-aged and balding Manhattanite grabbing a Starbucks to go) delivered the vocals in pristine old-era Pixies’ style. It was magical. The Pixies clearly still had the dust for their fans.

Before Beneath The Eyrie came out, the Pixies began a 12-episode podcast on the making of the album, teasing songs interspersed with interviews of the band members and references to eerie Gothic folklore. Beneath The Eyrie was recorded in a remote church in upstate New York converted into a studio. And the songs on the album reflect the dark mood. Refreshingly, the dozen tracks differ in mood and style from the ones on their last two albums.

That’s probably because on their new album, the Pixies are not trying to live up to audience and fan expectations but sound as if they are evolving into something new. There’s an eerie song about a witch (On Graveyard Hill); there is a ballad about a woman being attacked by a catfish but emerging victorious (Catfish Kate); and the band sounds as if it has got a new lease of life. This is the Pixies in 2019; not the Pixies in 2019 trying to be the Pixies in the 1990s.

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

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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