Doolittle (does a lot)

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?

28 comments on “Doolittle (does a lot)

  1. […] setting than in a stadium or large theater. I cannot say for sure that this is the case for the Pixies, but I imagine when daydreaming that when they were first playing out in clubs, even into the […]

  2. […] my tastes, as the line between different eras. (The first time I heard “She’s An Angel”, “Monkey Gone to Heaven” or “Nothing Better”.) The musical treasure trove turned up such a series of revelations as […]

  3. […] don’t we hear Mates of State, the Pixies, They Might Be Giants, or Jose Gonzalez on the radio? Because they are unknown quantities who […]

  4. […] most of the songs I end up liking (think of selections from They Might Be Giants and the Pixies), the lyrics on these three songs refuse disambiguation. But, unlike some of the […]

  5. […] about the way that one album stands out against others (difference), the way it engages with its genre and tradition (history) and, most importantly, the way it bears witness to my memories. Finally, and most […]

  6. […] of this song.  “Where is My Mind” is one of the reasons why I struggled so mightily with my decision to rate Doolittle higher than Surfer Rosa. This song, with its enigmatic lyrics—placing a body now on its head, now underwater talking with […]

  7. […] deep enough (when will a mainstream station give me some early They Might Be Giants, Fugazi or Pixies?) and not playing enough outside the alt-rock mainstream (if that makes sense, Mates of State and […]

  8. […] I did with it sounded true. They Might Be Giants covers? The Telly could handle it. Weezer? The Pixies? R.E.M? Check. Check. And Check. The Telecaster was cool enough to be acceptable wherever I took […]

  9. theLead_Guitarist says:

    One of the most amazing live experiences of my life was seeing the Pixies play Doolittle front to back this past year. Say what you will about reunion tours and seeing a band past their prime, if you closed your eyes, you’d never have guessed it wasn’t 1988. “Hey” was the unquestionable highlight of the night. Extremely powerful.

  10. […] are known for their message, but what about the titanic rhythm section? Who knows the drummer for The Pixies or U2 by name? (David Lovering and Larry Mullen Jr.) Would anyone know that Dave Grohl was the […]

  11. […] The third-track on the album (“Clan in Front”), dominated by RZA and GZA, is less melodic but brings in the manic and insistent shout/rumble of the whole clan over a spare but bright bass line and the buzzing of bees until the verse changes. The transition from chaos to clear vocals in the second verse parallels some of the greatest contrasts you find in the music of Fugazi or the Pixies. […]

  12. […] and there are typically underrepresented artists (I have yet to hear They Might Be Giants, the Pixies or Fugazi on any channel). But, since I am too lazy to do any real research on the matter, I will […]

  13. […] schtick. I kept waiting for the break, for some quiet to help the noise make sense (you know, like the Pixies taught: loud, quiet, loud again). When it happens, about 12 measures too late, the beat is nice (like […]

  14. […] In this song, Meat Puppets use the lead line to anticipate the melody and themes of the song that follows. The music functions mnemonically to help us remember the song. This band influenced Kurt Cobain. (As did The Pixies.) […]

  15. […] One album that I would have worn out if it had not been on CD is the Breeder’s Last Splash. I am going to keep my general argument simple and to the point. This album has been neglected for both its artistic content and for its special appeal as a blend of different styles. It has been underappreciated for the testament it presents to Kim Deal’s talent. And, by implication,  it suggests that Deal was an integral influence on the development of alt-rock in the 1980s as a member of  the Pixies. […]

  16. […] how much I love this band. I have mentioned probably a thousand times about how much I love the Pixies. Kim Deal’s voice, bass playing, and artistic sense were essential to both. When she sings lead […]

  17. […] my tastes, as the line between different eras. (The first time I heard “She’s An Angel”, “Monkey Gone to Heaven” or “Nothing Better”.) The musical treasure trove turned up such a series of revelations as […]

  18. […] The Pixies, “Monkey Gone to Heaven“ […]

  19. […] Just as baseball has waned in popularity because of its old-fashioned slowness, so too has the album as an art form lost ground to the single song (so downloadable and dispensable). And, yet, both baseball and the album depend upon a series of discrete elements to add up to a persuasive and effective whole. So, in the spirit of the season and in honor of the Red Sox’ return to October, I am going to pursue this silly idea of the baseball and album lineups using the 2004 Red Sox playoffs hitters and the songs from the Boston-formed Pixies’ great album Surfer Rosa. […]

  20. […] brother wrote on this song before and it deserves another mention. The use of it in the end of  Fight Club may be my favorite […]

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  23. […] brother and I obviously love the Pixies and Fight Club so it was pretty cool and coincidental that this song came on at this time at this airport bar. […]

  24. […] my tastes, as the line between different eras. (The first time I heard “She’s An Angel”, “Monkey Gone to Heaven” or “Nothing Better”.) The musical treasure trove turned up such a series of revelations as […]

  25. […] don’t we hear Mates of State, the Pixies, They Might Be Giants, or Jose Gonzalez on the radio? Because they are unknown quantities who […]

  26. […] most of the songs I end up liking (think of selections from They Might Be Giants and the Pixies), the lyrics on these three songs refuse disambiguation. But, unlike some of the […]

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