Luke Haines is an English musician and writer. He has recorded under the name of the Auteurs and Black Box Recorder. His books include the bestselling Bad Vibes – Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall. His latest solo album, Smash The System, is out on Cherry Red Records on October 7, 2016. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter and his website.
I have a problem with bands reforming. Especially great bands, and the Pixies were, of course, a great band; a beautiful car crash of Latino speed babble and dada madness that scorched the dreadful earth of the vile 1980s. That was then and this is now, and in dreadful 2016, the Pixies are back with a new album, Head Carrier. My heart did not beat faster at this news…
My problem with reheated rock acts stems from 1993, when I had the misfortune of witnessing the reformed Velvet Underground almost trash their entire reputation. This particular crime against rock & roll occurred in a field in southwest England. It was the Glastonbury Festival. My own band, the Auteurs, had finished our midafternoon set and now the real fun of the day was to begin. Or so I hoped. Off I trudged through fields and over hills, my winklepickered feet nimbly dodging cowpats and skillfully kicking semi-comatose festival-going morons in the head whenever the chance arose. Some forty-five minutes later, I stood watching the Velvet Underground murder “Venus in Furs.”
“Shiny, shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather, wooh, yeah,” Lou sang contemptuously. The crowd tried to avoid eye contact with each other; none of us wanted to admit that the Velvet Underground were being shit. The Velvet Underground, previously preserved in untouchable myth — the least “shit” band in the world — had now turned the tables. On it went, Lou carefully massacring his classics, all the while playing a stupid-looking muso-tech guitar called a Steinberger.
It was all so wrong. The Velvets should never have reformed.
It was all so wrong. The Velvets should never have reformed. This was a band that belonged in New York Fuckin’ City, playing to an audience of scary transvestites, “A”-men (speed freaks to you and me) and Jim Carroll. The Velvet Underground were not ever meant to play to dopey Wellington boot-wearing festival tourists in a fucking cow field in the south of England. This encounter, as you might imagine, has rather taken the shine off of bands reforming for me — besides, how many reformed bands have put out an LP that matches any of their great first-time-around work? I bet you can’t name two.
Everyone loves the Pixies, and so they should. I mean, if you don’t dig the fuck out of Surfer Rosa, you’ve gotta be some kind of moron. Right? So, the Pixies’ task (if that is what it is) is daunting, and the bar is high, but they couldn’t possibly make a record as fantastic as 1989’s Doolittle now, could they? Well, maybe they have at least gotten closer than anyone thought possible…
Head Carrier is a pop classic. This is evident as soon as the title track and opener lurches into gear. It’s a classic: “Debaser” slowed down to a prowl as Black Francis most excellently addresses someone called “Rusty.” It may be the plot of a slasher movie or it might be about Francis’ pet goldfish (I suspect the latter – Head Carrier is that kind of album). Whatever, it’s funny as fuck. The title track is followed by “Classic Masher.” It’s another future classic with Francis screaming out, er, “He’s a classic masher,” and we all go, “OK, why not?”
That half the songs on Head Carrier sound like they may have come out of the band jamming ‘Debaser’ is no bad thing.
That half the songs on Head Carrier sound like they may have come out of the band jamming “Debaser” is no bad thing – it’s actually the album’s strength, and when Charles starts singing, “I wanna join your band” on “Oona,” you realize that Head Carrier has more hooks than Peter Hook’s coat stand.
There is, of course, a Kim Deal-sized hole to deal with. A Kim Deal-shaped elephant in the room, if you like. Kim Deal left the refried Pixies years ago. The great Kim was totemic, the heart and soul of Pixies, a kind of U.S. alt-rock one-woman version of the Faces. Even more brilliantly, Kim Deal only ever sounded (note: I said sounded) like she was playing four notes on the bass, which is exactly what her replacement — someone called Paz — does brilliantly. The excitingly named Paz seems to be a one-woman Kim Deal tribute act (this is a good thing). She plays like Kim, she sings exactly like Kim, and she even gets a Kim Deal-style perfectly proportioned single songwriting credit. So the irreplaceable Kim is entirely replaceable.
Rock music seems to be going toward being overly serious again; obviously no one would have expected David Bowie or Nick Cave to make lighthearted records right now, but the crawl toward rock bands making serious, “sombre works” seems more prevalent than ever. The Pixies, at their best, were always funny as fuck. “I was talking to preachy-preach/about kissy-kiss/He bought me a soda/He bought me a soda/He bought me a soda and he tried to molest me in the parking lot” from Surfer Rosa‘s opener “Bone Machine” never fails to amuse. And Head Carrier is a fine, rockin’ as fuck, funny album. Francis even gets to make a few serious statements, not least on the excellent “Talent,” a short sharp meditation on ambition and success that still manages to keep the funny by rhyming “talent” with “Jack Palance.”
There’s nothing new on Head Carrier. Nor should there be.
There’s nothing new on Head Carrier. Nor should there be (no one ever sounded like Pixies, anyway). The Pixies have succeeded by sticking to the hardest rock & roll discipline: “Keep it simple, stupid.” The nearest comparison, if you want such things is to the Monkees’ excellent recent album Good Times, and as Head Carrier sails off into the sunset on fragments of broken Hank Marvin twang, Pixies join the Monkees in that most exclusive club: the club of reformed bands who have equaled their best work when they were young, potent and around for the first time.
(Photo credit: Travis Shinn)