I’m making good friends with you
when you’re shaking your good frame
fall on your face in those bad shoes
lying there like you’re tame
How does one judge an album? Is it by the influence it exerts on its time or the degree to which it is representative of its era? Is it by its ‘originality’ (the magnitude by which it differs from its time)? Should we rank albums based on what people or artists say about them (some kind of BCS voting for music)? Or should we, as many do, evaluate an album’s merit based on its subsequent influence? (This rubric itself is shifting; influences have varied durations and potency.)
In the patently subjective and admittedly haphazard spirit of my mission—to collect the ten albums I could live with forever—I prize the wholly individualized “memory” index balanced against beginning-to-end ‘listen-ability’. For ‘historical’ albums—those whose time on the charts has largely come and gone—these are the only two rubrics that really matter: how an album connects you to the timelessness music promises; and whether or not the entire sequence is consistent, coherent and compelling.
(The ‘historical axis’ is also important for establishing musical canons and trends, but I won’t pretend to possess the breadth or depth of knowledge required for such tasks. Of course, these categories cannot be immediately applied to new albums. Instead, when I listen an album the first time, I let its sounds wash over me; I endeavor to ‘inhabit’ the music, to dwell in a void where there is nothing else and to breathe with every rim-click and to feel the slight dissonance of fingers sliding on guitar strings. I try, as if a formalist or unreflective New Critic, to experience the piece as an aesthetic moment apart from everything else.)
The Pixies made an indelible impact upon me at an impressionable age. What I have not completely resolved is which of their albums I love the most. Come on Pilgrim is delightfully unique, but it lacks the confluence of melody and dissonance that I associate with the Pixies most strongly. Surfer Rosa has one of the best three song sequences of any album ever (“Gigantic”, “River Euphrates”, and “Where is My Mind”) but its later “Tony’s Theme” and “Oh My Golly”, while interesting, aren’t as powerful or well-arranged. Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde have strong offerings, but fall flat in comparison to the band’s coup de grace: Doolittle.
(I am sure that ‘real’ Pixies fans and alt-rock aficionados will take issue with this ranking. Doolittle is probably too popish; the songs are too polished: it lacks the raw excitement of Surfer Rosa. But, screw them and those contextual concerns. Doolittle, from beginning to end, is a masterpiece.)
Part of my affinity for this album has to do, as always, with the memories. I remember lying on the floor of a half-finished house hearing “Monkey Gone to Heaven” (and being pulled back to this repeatedly when the Bloodhound Gang’s “Fire Water Burn” was popular). My siblings and I used to drive around town listening to “Here Comes Your Man”. I (more than once) made out to “La La Love You.” I debated the meaning of “Debaser”, defended the screams of “Tame” and felt a shiver when I first heard TV on the Radio’s cover of “Mr. Grieves”.
While Surfer Rosa most clearly establishes the Pixies’ sound, Doolittle perfects it and elevates it through variation. The Pixies are known, as their documentaries proclaim, for the “loud, quiet, loud” contrast that abandoned the basic crescendo or constant volume typical of rock music (although, they as often start quiet…the point is that they are dynamic through sharp, daring (almost schizophrenic) contrast). But this claim is not quite descriptive enough. The sound contrasts are amplified by the use of the instruments (simple, but booming bass lines; complimentary and creative drum lines; strange but effective lead guitar riffs) but they are focused to perfection by the vocals.
Black Francis (Frank Black) has one of the more unique vocal styles from the past 30 years of alt-rock. His tone is good (he can sing sweetly when he wants to) but it is the way he uses this instrument that matters. He can speak a lyric (as in “Monkey Gone to Heaven”), he can offer the cadence of a pop singer (“Here Comes Your Man”) or give a playful, almost detached performance (“La La Love You”). But what really characterizes him is the severity of the contrast between his whispered lyrics, his full singing voice, and his growling scream. Frank Black can wail and it is not pretty, but it can shake you down to your feet.
When combined with the sweet, almost understated, harmonies of Kim Deal, the vocal acrobatics of any Pixies album may not be for the tender-eared. What makes the Pixies—what makes their near screeching sounds (both from the guitars and the vocals) effective is the unexpected harmony between sound and sense. In an earlier entry I discussed the early literary ideal that a poem’s sounds ought to echo tits sense. While there are certainly myriad exceptions to this ideal, there is something about the Pixies’ sound that touches upon the ineffable.
Pixies’ songs are torrents of emotion contained within lyrics that flirt with clear statements while nearly defying any interpretation. The violence of converting ‘meaning’ into language, or emotion into music, is thus indirectly represented through the rupture of perfect harmony. What makes these ruptures musical, what gives them potency beyond raw emotional vigor, is that the songs never disintegrate into pure noise. Instead, they flirt with disaster while insisting on a return to the boundary of the song.
In a way (and this may be too grand of a claim, but fuck it) the typical Pixies’ song imitates individual life at its foulest and truest: strong beginnings and ends, indefatigable structure, all surrounding a voice that strains and protests at these bounds while really surrendering to be part of them.
Within this general trend the contrasts developed through the songs support the power of the album and a claim that this is the most representative Pixies’ album. “Debaser”, and “There Goes my Gun” could easily sit on Surfer Rosa while “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and “La La Love You” are playful but musically effective where many of the tracks on the earlier album fail. “Here Comes Your Man” could have been a top-10 single; “Tame” and “Crackity Jones” are frenetic and grating without sacrificing an underlying melody. “Gouge Away”, “I Bleed” and “Dead” are not easily forgotten.
One of the best songs on the album, one of the most beautiful alt-rock songs ever is “Hey”. In many ways, this piece is one of the band’s greatest achievements. Black shouts the song into beginning :“Hey, been trying to meet you” and hums as the bass line rolls in while the accompanying guitar lick turns and churns us through the verse. Black sings, alternating between rhythmic words and stretching out syllables (“Hey..where…have you…been?” The sentence is a question and a lament). Black’s vocals crack as he approaches the verse where Deal’s level harmony helps to anchor him. At the same time, the lyrics converge to a moaning “if you go I will surely die / we’re chained”. Black turns the word “chained” over and over—stretching it to three or four syllables before clipping it off with a shout.
This song contains some of the most conservative guitar solos on the album, but they blend beautifully into the musical bridge where Black again alternates between grunts and singing.. He stretches out “This is the sound” until he almost shouts “that the mother makes when the baby breaks” before moving back to the lamentation “Chained”.
What the hell is this about? The song starts with a devil in the bed, the singer sleeping with whores and ends up with the breaking of a baby. The chains could be metaphors for any type of restriction, for any bondage. But, combined with the image of sexuality cast in shrouds of sin, the song seems to me to be musical grief for mortality. Black calls himself and his audience to attention with the shouted “Hey” and then muses on the bounds of the human condition.
Or something like that.
This album wins my undying devotion because it keeps moving on me. I am never sure how to take a given song. The music itself seems to grow alongside the protean flow of the lyrics. The longer I hear them, Black’s vocals seem more nuanced and subtle. So, because the album rewards repeated listening, it must rank high. The weakest track is “Silver”, which, after the barely checked fury of “Hey” is a quiet, if proleptic relief (it really anticipates some of the sounds of The Breeders).
Doolittle is the first lock for the desert island list. I have been listening to it for nearly 20 years. I will be listening to it for at least 20 more.
And you brother, what do you think?