Beneath The Eyrie

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Album: Beneath the Eyrie

Artist: Pixies

Released: September 13th, 2019

Highlights: In the Arms of Mrs. Mark of Cain, Catfish Kate, Silver Bullet, St. Nazaire, Daniel Boone

The ominous nest on the cover. The gloomy title. The fact it was recorded inside an isolated church somewhere in upstate New York. All signs seem to indicate that the Pixies, in their seventh overall studio album and third since their return, have suddenly gone gothic. And greeted with the somewhat surprising keyboard, one that would not be out of place in The Cure’s “Disintegration”, that accompanies the rising guitar of opener “In the Arms of Mrs. Mark of Cain”, listeners may buy into that notion and have it partially confirmed when seeing that the following track on the batting order is named “On Graveyard Hill”. “Beneath the Eyrie”, however, does not follow through on that initially suggested thematic, presenting no major stylistic shift to those who are familiar with the band. And that is just about fine.

At this point in their career, the Pixies are unlikely to gain many new fans or break into some revelatory ground. They are not bound to come upon another “Surfer Rosa” or “Doolittle”, records that would go on to influence a new generation of musicians and all the ones that would follow. Likewise, it is highly improbable they will bring back into the fold former fans who think the band should not continue to exist when Kim Deal, their iconic bassist, is out of the picture. Right now, the Pixies are writing, recording, and touring for the converted: those who are able to accept the notion that the group is – and has always been – a vehicle for the songwriting of Black Francis to be broadcast as it is accompanied by the signature guitar playing of Joey Santiago, the tight drumming of David Lovering, and a talented female bassist and vocalist who is able to provide some sweet harmonies and is unafraid to occasionally take center stage. And under that guise, “Beneath the Eyrie” is good.

The record is not without its missteps. Age has, obviously and naturally, affected Black Francis’ voice and lyrics, but where the first is – despite far from its past might – still good enough to carry a tune, the second have lost their mythological and surrealistic charm, at times coming off as if they are trying too hard to land on that likable quirky former style. Moreover, out of the twelve songs brought by “Beneath the Eyrie”, three of them rank close to the bottom of the band’s output: the oddly theatrical “This Is My Fate”, whose only saving grace is how it aims for a new niche for the Pixies; the pedestrian “Ready for Love”, which does have a pleasant Santiago guitar break; and “Birds of Prey”, where Francis talks dully and the melodic combination of Paz’s backing vocals and Joey’s little licks fails as a hook due to how it is closer to annoying than to catchy.

Everywhere else, though, “Beneath the Eyrie” is safely above average. It goes without saying that such a mark is not quite good enough for a band that had a nigh immaculate original run of four records; and in the sense that the album certainly does not keep up with any of the members of that stellar quartet, it surely leaves the door open for arguments that mention a tarnished legacy and a pointless release. However, in the sense that the Pixies are a rock band and that “Beneath the Eyrie” is a rock record, what stands is the fact that their seventh effort is a mostly fun listen grounded on what the group does well, which is using punk guitars, aggressive grooves, bare-bones instrumentation, and an idiosyncratic match of lyrics and vocals to support pop melodies that surf the waves of constant shifts between quietness and loudness.

The usual suspects are all here. In “St. Nazaire”, the Pixies go hardcore, Black Francis screams without a care in the world, and Santiago finds a riff that is mean enough to evoke hellish images. Meanwhile, “On Graveyard Hill” and “Catfish Kate” employ the most well-known of the band’s recipes: verses anchored on raw bass and drums that eventually are pulled into exploding catchy choruses, with the difference being that in the first the Pixies lean towards the punk and in the second they step into the pop by adorning the cut with acoustic strums and an almost wishful melody. “Long Rider” does not stray too far away from that mold, even if it bets more heavily in the harmonization between Francis and Paz and on a darker tone in its verses, which evaporates by the time it gears up to the refrain. Other cards that the Pixies have pulled during their run, but that are not as common as these, also show up in fine form and in a slightly altered approach.

“Daniel Boone” can be compared to the classic “Motorway to Roswell” given it is – by the band’s standards of song length – a nearly five-minute acoustic epic; only where the track from “Trompe le Monde” was filled with alien guitars and an extraterrestrial plot, the “Beneath the Eyrie” centerpiece is an atmospheric low-gravity slice of lunar beauty. “Los Surfer Muertos”, sung by Paz, could be a great lost cut from “Bossanova”, as it carries the mid-tempo pace and mysterious wide soundscape of that record, being part surf rock on mushrooms and part outer-space weirdness. At last, “Silver Bullet” – a strong contender for the spot of best track in the set – is a western ballad (a theme already explored by “Silver” from “Doolittle”) that musically grasps the tension of a duel in the scorching Sun.

Closing with “Death Horizon, a simple acoustic song that is pleasant enough but not quite sufficiently great to justify the noble position it has in the album’s track list, “Beneath the Eyrie” is not completely solid. It has, after all, some very visible holes that are a bit hard to overlook. It is, however, by almost every single standard in rock music, a good album: its cuts are generally very good and, in their briefness, rarely overstay their welcome; its production brings out the best in the band, only intruding to highlight and bring forth notable aspects of specific songs; and its songwriting is competent even though the pen of Black Francis has clearly seen better days.

Its main problem stems from the fact that one of the few rock standards to which it does not live up is the original sequence of records by the band that made it. It is a curse that plagued “Indie Cindy” and “Head Carrier” before it, and it is a shadow that will engulf – even if partially – everything the Pixies will put out until they call it a day. To those that have fallen to it, “Beneath the Eyrie” will undoubtedly land flat, hitting their ears like the sound of a group that is dragging their legacy through the mud. To those who are still listening, though, it holds a good deal of value and some remarkable gems. And while the former group will, understandably, walk away in disgust; the latter will be happy to know Black Francis, Joey Santiago, and David Lovering are still – Deal or no Deal – doing it and enjoying the massive well-deserved laurels that they should have gotten between 1986 and 1993.

Surfer Rosa

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Album: Surfer Rosa

Artist: Pixies

Released: March 21st, 1988

Highlights: Bone Machine, Break My Body, Where Is My Mind?, River Euphrates

Wild, violent, aggressive, raw, energetic, and in-your-face. To some extent, those adjectives have been used throughout music history to describe an enormous amount of tracks and albums: from those produced by all bands associated with the punk rock movement to the ones birthed by the endless groups that fall into the equally vast sub-genres of metal. It is arguable, however, that even if those records do have a claim to sporting such qualifications, the Pixies’ debut, “Surfer Rosa”, makes – during slightly over thirty minutes – the point that, more than being worthy of receiving those labels, it absolutely owns them.

“Surfer Rosa” is so bare-bones in sound and instrumentation it makes the no-frills rock that blasts from garages around the world look like the work of a progressive band; it is so uncompromising that it makes the song structures from a Ramones LP seem like they are part of a pompous rock opera; and it is written and performed with such an absurd bend towards primal instincts it makes the raw power of The Stooges appear too calculated in comparison. “Surfer Rosa” screams, attacks, pounds, and finds a way to alternate moments of jarring psychopathy with intermissions of tongue-in-cheek fun.

Throughout the album, Black Francis – the group’s singer and songwriter – seems to be constantly challenging the notion of what can pass for a song. Out of the thirteen tracks, five do not even reach the two-minute mark, and just three of them safely climb above three minutes. But it is not just a matter of brevity; it is often a question of structure.

On “Something Against You”, with a distorted voice that seems to indicate some murderous intent, he repeats the title madly while the band blasts a spiral of noise; “Tony’s Theme”, about a child who imagines himself as a superhero who chases villains on his bike, is appropriately a whole lot like a personal anthem a toddler would come up with in a few minutes; “Oh My Golly” is so simple it comes off like the type of throwaway tune that would be used by the band to warm up in the studio or on stage before actually performing, only it has somehow made it into the album; and “I’m Amazed”, which opens with hilarious playful studio banter between Francis and bassist Kim Deal, has more dialogue than lyrics. As such, “Surfer Rosa” could have easily been the target of accusations of laziness or lack of material, especially given it was the band’s full-length debut. Yet, through some sort of trickery, the Pixies make it work.

As one of the first production jobs of the now legendary Steve Albini, and the reason he would go on to be employed by various other artists, “Surfer Rosa” has a raw purity that explains his fame as a producer who is really more of a recorder. With compulsively precise microphone placement and by having the group perform live in the studio as much as possible, Albini extracts the immaculate essence of a four-piece rock band. David Lovering’s drums sound magnificent, and it is arguable the instrument has never been recorded so flawlessly; and given that, alongside Kim Deal’s bass, they are the leading thread of most of the songs, their prominent position in the mix does wonders to the tracks’ inherent violence.

Meanwhile, the guitars of Santiago and Francis are strident and vicious. On “River Euphrates”, they sound like they could cut through steel; on the quiet and monotonic “Cactus”, they are subdued and threatening; and on the opener, “Bone Machine”, whenever they explode just as Francis lets out a glorious scream, they seem ready to kill. Consequently, the music of “Surfer Rosa” oozes brutality, sometimes precariously chained and sometimes dangerously loose, but it somehow makes its savagery appealing.

Francis sings about a man who finds pleasure and jealousy in watching his girlfriend be unfaithful to him and who appears to be ready to end it all quite violently (“Bone Machine”), a family whose incestuous behavior has led to deformed offspring (“Broken Face”), a well-endowed black man (“Gigantic”), and an inmate who want his lover to send him a bloodied and sweaty piece of underwear to prove she is still alive (“Cactus”). Yet, despite the potentially appalling subjects, the Pixies never lose sight of the poppy hooks, and that is ultimately what makes “Surfer Rosa”, for it exists on such thin line between the disturbing and the sugary that it is shocking it is able to stand and support itself on it.

All of its tunes are as catchy as they are violent, and for every sick scream, awkwardly sung verse, and transgressive sentence, there is a weird melodic line from which it is impossible to escape. That odd balance is prevalent on “Surfer Rosa”, be it in how Kim Deal’s sweet and almost naive backing vocals act as a soothing counterpoint to Francis’s insanity or in how it alternates sheer abrasiveness with a couple of tracks of pure pop rock bliss (“Gigantic” and “Where Is My Mind?”). “Surfer Rosa” is such an uncanny working mixture of pieces that are thorny and accessible that its existence is sort of a musical miracle, and just like it successfully claims as its property the adjectives wild, violent, aggressive, raw, energetic, and in-your-face, it positions itself as the progenitor of all alternative rock that is artistically independent, challenging, and immensely enjoyable.

Trompe Le Monde

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Album: Trompe Le Monde

Artist: Pixies

Released: September 23rd, 1991

Highlights: Planet of Sound, Alec Eiffel, U-Mass, Motorway to Roswell

“Trompe Le Monde” is the fourth and final album the Pixies released in their original run of madness and greatness, marking the end of a career frequently hailed as nearly immaculate before the band walked into the studio (albeit without bassist Kim Deal) in 2014 to release the often maligned “Indie Cindy”. Given its arrival came roughly one year before the group’s conflicted separation, “Trompe Le Monde” is usually accompanied by a narrative that sees it as some sort of drop; a result of the increasingly distant and hurtful relationship between bandleader and main songwriter Black Francis, and Kim Deal, who – blocked from contributing creatively to the band – had formed The Breeders on the previous year to serve as her artistic outlet. In a way, it is a story that is backed up by the music: Deal’s sweet backing vocals, always a powerful counterpoint to Francis’ insane screams, are nearly absent; moreover, “Trompe Le Monde” is indeed more inconsistent than what came before it. In another way, though, the plot does not hold, because while “Trompe Le Monde” may actually have a few holes in it, it would have been celebrated as an achievement if produced by any other band.

With a whopping fifteen tracks that somehow deliver their messages within less than forty minutes, “Trompe Le Monde” executes the usual Pixies formula of entering the ring, punching listeners with quick loud songs filled with catchy hooks, and walking out victoriously. Barely none of the tracks last for over three minutes; they efficiently lure fans into their grasp with the seemingly impossible consonance between punk guitars, aggressive vocals, and pop skills, and move out into the sunset, making way to the next barrage of delightful lunacy. There is eardrum-rupturing screaming, blissful quietness, and sheer sugar-coated melodic goodness, usually all combined into the same two-minute tracks, but also occasionally being individually used as the backbone for some compositions. “Trompe Le Monde” falters in the tuneless talking-singing of “Space (I Believe in)” and “Subbacultcha”, which are quite dull despite their hilarious subjects: a dude named Jeffrey, but with only one F; and the mocking of groups of people who try too hard to be cool, and succeed only inside the bubbles in which they inhabit.

Everywhere else, the album presents varying levels of greatness. The title song is an exciting combination of rough instrumentation and floaty vocals. “Planet of Sound”, about a space traveler, and “Alec Eiffel, centered around the French architect, are easily among the Pixies’ greatest songs. “The Sad Punk” takes the band’s quite-and-loud dynamics to an absurd extreme, being spit into a shouting segment and a highly sweet and melodic portion, resulting in a three-minute rock opera. “Head On” turns The Jesus and Mary Chain’s original, sung by an amusingly bored Jim Reid, into a high-energy punk anthem, a description that also applies to “Distance Equals Rate Times Time”. “U-Mass” uses a brainless riff composed when Francis and Santiago were in college as the support for a song about the brainlessness of a wild campus life. “Palace of the Brine” and “Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons” slowly build into incredible hooks. “Letter to Memphis” is the most straight pop-rock tune in the Pixies’ four classic albums. “Lovely Day” toys with lo-fi ethics. And “The Navajo Know” is hypnotic in its clockwork-like progression.

No other tune on the record, though, is as great as the magnificent “Motorway to Roswell”. A rarity for the Pixies, and a suiting exclamation point for the end of their run, it is a five-minute epic with a ballad-like acoustic strum in its verses, a climatic chorus, and a masterful guitar performance by Santiago that chronicles the Roswell UFO incident from the perspective of the friendly extraterrestrial that decided to pay humans a visit only to be dissected by scientists not long after his crash landing. Although it is not positioned as the album’s closer, which is perhaps another minor shortcoming of “Trompe Le Monde”, it displays the band’s incredible creative force lasted until the final seconds of their trajectory, and sends the Pixies’ original lineup straight from record players around the world to the pantheon of musical greatness. They rocked fiercely, loudly, boldly, weirdly, and relentlessly until the very end.

Head Carrier

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Album: Head Carrier

Artist: Pixies

Released: September 10th, 2016

Highlights: Head Carrier, Talent, Tenement Song, Um Chagga Lagga

In 2014, after a hiatus of thirteen years, the Pixies released their first album since 1991’s “Trompe Le Monde”. As a band whose flawless legacy of four excellent records and one legendary EP grew to unforeseen heights after their breakup, “Indie Cindy” was – in a way – destined to be looked down on as an effort that did not live up to the greatness of that original run. The fact that the album was merely good, with decent to great tunes that failed to capture the group’s essence, certainly helped that cause. Two years later, “Head Carrier” emerges as proof that the Pixies, minus the departed bassist Kim Deal who is replaced by Paz Lenchantin, are pretty serious about their return to being productive musicians. It indicates that, just like fans are still wrapping their minds around the idea of receiving new tunes by the band, Black Francis, Joey Santiago, and Dave Lovering are relearning how to write and perform like the Pixies, for “Head Carrier” is much closer to the idiosyncrasy that turned them into alternative symbols than its predecessor.

Truthfully, “Head Carrier”, like “Indie Cindy”, presents something the early albums never did: unapologetic straightforward pop-rock songs. However, not only does it tackle that spectrum with far more success, turning in a good range of great tunes like the sweet soft ballad “Might as Well Be Gone” and the catchy rocker “Classic Masher”, the album also features an element that was mostly absent from “Indie Cindy”: a wild punk edge. The Pixies were masters in disguising excellent immediate hooks with all manners of curve-balls, such as mad screaming, unexpected guitar explosions, surrealistic lyrics that drank from obscure references to art and the Bible, changes of tempo, weird singing, and more. The disguises are by all means back, save for the use of Spanish words, but this time around they are not so thick, causing the band to sound somewhat more conventional – even if they are still quite unique – and making the pop inclinations of the tracks rise more prominently to the surface.

The title song kicks things off with an evil heavy guitar crunch previously unseen in the group’s discography and counters that power with a blissful melodic chorus, a reversal of the quiet-and-loud dynamic they coined. In “Baal’s Back”, Francis plays the role of the titular Biblical demon and shouts maniacally throughout the song, which has echoes of “Rock Music” from “Bossanova”. The sequence of “Talent”, “Tenement Song”, and “Bel Esprit” forms the album’s pop-rock core that is united by great catchy melodies: the first being about Jack Palance, or at least a dude that looks like him; the second balancing soft verses with a hard-rocking chorus; and the last offering an exquisite alien guitar texture that only Joey Santiago could execute. Meanwhile, “Um Chagga Lagga”, which depicts a frantic chase in lyrics and music, could be a lost heavier cut from “Come On Pilgrim”, featuring weird voices by Black Francis, a fast menacing pace, and an unusual melody.

“Head Carrier” shows the Pixies coming back into touch with much of what made them fantastic, even if it is slightly more sugar-coated than their early material. Even the mellow female backing vocals that contrapose Black Francis make a return; in fact, never have they been so frequent. Paz Lenchantin does incredible work, and she even gets to lead a song by herself (ironically, the letter to Kim Deal “All I Think About Now”, which has a loud ringing guitar backing an acoustic strum similar to that of “Where Is My Mind?”), and share vocals with Black Francis in “All the Saints”, which closes the album in much the same fashion as “Brick Is Red” from “Surfer Rosa”, by putting together a brief tune that is divided into an instrumental section preceding a short sung segment. Still, they are not merely reconnecting with the past here: they are writing and performing great songs that are worthy of their name and fame.

Indie Cindy

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Album: Indie Cindy

Artist: Pixies

Released: April 28th, 2014

Highlights: What Goes Boom, Greens and Blues, Indie Cindy

For any band, producing a record some twenty-three years after their last work is a daunting challenge. For a group whose original run was a flawless seven-year period that yielded four classic records and one historic EP, it is even harder. If any rock act was to pull off something of the sort with great success, the Pixies would have to be a safe bet. After all, they achieved notoriety by defying conventions with mind-twisting dynamics and lyrics of intricate symbolism. They could sure do it, right?

“Indie Cindy” is a tough work to assess. After two decades, it is natural to expect that Francis, Santiago, and Lovering have greatly changed both as people and musicians, so expecting a straight follow-up to “Trompe le Monde” would be downright wrong. At the same time, it is impossible not to compare it to the ridiculously high bar set by the group between 1986 and 1993. That is why it warrants two distinct evaluations: in a bubble it is a good fun album, while as a Pixies record it falls flat.

It is fun because Francis knows a great rock hook when he sees it, as it is evident on the pleasant poppy “Greens and Blues”, which includes a signature Santiago wizard guitar, the sunny surfer “Another Toe in the Ocean”, and the beautiful chorus of “Ring the Bell”. At the same time, it lacks those fall-out-of-the-chair punk moments that were generally caused by the early tunes’ mad progression and the quick swapping of random shouts for blissful quietness.

Truth be told, Francis does achieve – to some level – that kind of flooring magic. The opener “What Goes Boom”, the title song “Indie Cindy”, and the threatening “Magdalena 318″ have that unique Pixies edge. But, at the same, the album falls short of the Pixies greatness on good but pedestrian tunes like “Andro Queen”– which would have been great on a Francis solo record, “Blue Eyed Hexe” – an attempt to rewrite the classic “U-Mass”, and “Bagboy”– whose great chorus is wasted on a song with awkward verses.