By Dylan Grosz
Pixies once had a monopoly on the loud-quiet-loud song structure, a late ’80s revolution in a seemingly established rock music landscape. Tame, at times tender, vocal performances from Black Francis and Kim Deal would usually blast open into a chorus of angst and discord. Frontman Black Francis brought in the raw with his bipolar voice and messy rhythm guitar and songwriting. Kim Deal brought a soothing balm with her siren singing and simple, proper bass-playing. Joey Santiago on guitar and David Lovering on drums each brought a crisp, quasi-surf-rock expertise. After four short, seminal years and four acclaimed albums, Pixies’ galvanization of alternative rock came to an end. Though they didn’t achieve much fame in their productive period from 1988-91, artists like Nirvana and Radiohead, as well as fans, have made the Pixies oeuvre one of the most celebrated of the alt-rock canon.
As time marched on, this quartet of alt honeys reclined as they watched other musicians refine and tame Pixies rawness — to the point that it became a saturated convention of alt-rock. When the Pixies returned in 2014 with the promise of their first album in 23 years, fans rejoiced: Was a second genre revolution on the horizon? But as fans spun the trio of EPs and its compilation “Indie Cindy,” what came was not a twisting of music convention, but a vapid submission to music extant — a sound they founded, but which they can no longer master.
With expectations lowered, Pixies fans expected “Head Carrier” to be more of the same, bland same. Surprisingly, this album succeeds due to how little we expected of it.
Where we expected comatose vocals from Black Francis, we get a sign of vocal vitality, like in the seething angst of “Baal’s Back.” But unlike “Indie Cindy,” in which listeners were left cheated by the hole left by Kim Deal’s quitting of the band, “Head Carrier” contains more than Francis’s singing: We finally hear Kim Deal, or at least as much Kim Deal as new bassist and occasional vocalist Paz Lenchantin can proxy. Lenchantin’s much-needed appearance adds the calming, grounded vocals severely lacking from their previous “comeback” album. “All I Think About Now,” an immediate standout, is both a showcase of Lenchantin’s enchanting vocal ability and an apology letter to the now departed Kim Deal.
As the void of Kim Deal partially closed, another one opened. Joey Santiago, well respected as the band’s lead guitarist, is renowned for providing perfect countermelodies to Francis’s muddy rhythm. He’s not consistently prominent on a Pixies record; when he is, though, it adds a level of skill to a song whose frontman writer sometimes suffers from having a “punk” mentality towards instrumental ability. While the beginning of the album’s first track opens with a promising guitar lick, as the song leads into the outro, Santiago plays a solo that seems awfully too simple and naive for a guitarist of his past and stature. Some “Head Carrier” songs pile up a slew of cringe-worthy riffs, to the point that it almost discredits the song. Luckily, though, other songs feature a decent Santiago, whose guitar sounds as fresh, quirky and stylistic as it did in the early ’90s.
Unlike the confusing sound of “Indie Cindy,” “Head Carrier” seems to be actively searching for the right new sonic direction to travel. “Oona,” “Tenement Song” and “Um Chagga Lagga” features a grungier take on the normal off-kilter crunch listeners are used to hearing from the band. They still feature Pixies signatures, like Santiago’s overlaid guitar and Lovering’s roomy drumming. Unfortunately, they also suffer from being slightly pedestrian and droning — something reserved for Black Francis’s solo work as Frank Black.
Other tracks mildly surprise the listener in their return to the Pixies’ nearly unanimously-praised late ’80s/early ’90s output. “Bel Esprit” stands out especially as their best “old sounding” song; however, one can easily identify its nearly identical chord progression to “The Happening” off 1990’s “Bossanova.” Then there are songs like “Talent” and “All the Saints” that seem to exist just as hastily made filler, short songs without attitude, a concept that never would or could cross the collective mind of “old Pixies.”
Then we have pop Pixies. Older records featured this version of the band, such as their hits “Here Comes Your Man,” “Gigantic” and “Velouria.” But this record’s taste of sugar, especially “Classic Masher,” quickly turns saccharine as the once-distinct instruments mesh into a forgetful, clichéd chord progression. But “Plaster of Paris” proves that there is some hope that the band hasn’t lost their pop touch.
Alternating between pushing into a direction of soft grunge and some pop rock, this record at least presents a consolidated search for sound, unlike the debilitating sonic confusion of “Indie Cindy.” The search yields inconclusive yet promising results. Black Francis declares in “Talent” that “if I had a certain style, then stuff would start to happen.” And I agree. If they have a certain style, stuff could start to happen.
Contact Dylan Grosz at dgrosz ‘at’ stanford.edu.