The Pixies: The Coolest Alternative Band

Top five of my favorite Pixies songs and classic example of the loud-soft dynamic.

Since we have covered multiple bands from the nineties recently, specifically Pearl Jam and Soul Coughing, I wanted to go back a little further before  writing on the latter band (because they are also one of my favorites). When “Smells like Teen Spirit” dropped back in the early 90’s, Kurt gave an interview saying he was trying to rip off the Pixies on that groundbreaking song. They were one of his favorite bands he said with a smile, with their loud to soft sound dynamics. Let’s be honest, that’s what made the song work, the juxtaposition of of the mumbled vocals with the loud and nearly grating crunchy guitar licks and shouts. This song will probably always represent the Gen X slackers and grunge sound and we have the Pixies to thank.

The dynamic here is almost all vocals, my favorite being when Frank Black screams “THEN GODDDDD IS SEVEN”. I have a good friend who only listens to Hip Hop, but for some reason, I got him into the Pixies and he routinely cites this as his favorite song. Also, I learned about this song via the Bloodhound Gang and their hit  “Fire Water Burn”.

After Bloodhound Gang, I stole the Elder J’s albums by the Pixies and became transfixed. I was already into Led Zeppelin, the Foo Fighters, Nirvana and The Beatles amongst all my other early musical influences. The Pixies fit right into this mold, even without a lot of guitar solos that I loved even at a young age.  They write interesting songs lyrically with a consistent unique sound that is never overbearing, which may be antithetical to my love of prog rock but I’ve always liked a variety of tunes. I didn’t know until recently that the band started at UMass at Amherst and that Kim Deal didn’t even own a bass when she answered lead singer/songwriter Frank Black’s ad for someone who liked both Peter, Paul and Mary and Husker Du. That’s funny stuff.

Kim Deal is not a crazily intricate bass player, but she is solid and inventive while also laying down some sweet backing vocals and the occasional lead like on this track supposedly dedicated to well endowed males. She left the band as of June 2013 which sucks because she was a driving force and  an inventive artist while not being the most musically trained individual. Hey, maybe it’s Breeders reunion time!

From the early touring years, after getting big in Europe, problems arose between Kim Deal and Frank Black with one incident where Frank threw a guitar at Kim while on stage. They butted heads due to musical/personal differences and what sounds like Frank’s desire to be the sole writing force. Kim was a headstrong woman and never fully warmed to the fact that Frank saw himself as the leader because he was the lead singer. They didn’t even talk for much of the last few years in the early 90’s before the hiatus and she quit for what sounds like forever last June. On one hand, this sucks. On the other, the tension helped to create some of my favorite music of the last thirty years and make a permanent mark on alternative music.

This was probably the closest they came to a pop song and another one of the first few that I heard by the band. It was this song and  “Monkey’s Gone to Heaven” that got me to delve into their albums further and discover tracks like “Caribou” and “Gigantic” amidst what is quality output pretty much throughout. A big selling point for me has been that you can listen to their albums all the way through and never need to skip a track. Few bands are like this anymore.

The Pixies never got huge, getting most of their airplay on college radio and alternative stations. They never to my knowledge got into heavy drug use, with Frank Black once saying the hardest stuff he ever got into was marijuana and it never allowed him to do anything more “creative than parallel parking.” They also never got big enough to become real conceited, except for a few things I’ve read about Frank Black. They don’t even take credit for creating anything new with sound dynamic, with Frank saying they didn’t know how to play any other way except for loud and soft, even calling it “dumbo dynamics”. Their uniqueness and a few other reasons is why they may be the coolest alternative band ever.

My 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 use of a song in any movie ever. I’m thinking it’s right up there with “Born to be Wild” in Easy Rider and “Damn it feels good to be Gangsta” in Office Space. I believe Frank wrote the song about scuba diving in the Caribbean while abroad at UMass.

The Pixies are cool for a myriad of reasons. First, they seem to be very modest about their role in alternative music and I think that’s rare in a recording industry rife with arrogance and narcissism. They’ve been compared with the Velvet Underground in that they never had mainstream commercial success, yet they have influenced scores of other bands. Secondly. they have a very unique sound which is unlike any other band I’ve ever heard. As with Primus, progressive rock and most of the bands I really like, I think this is important above all else. Not just in their music, but also in their lyrics which often deal with Biblical themes and other topics atypical of traditional alternative music. Lastly, I have loved them since about elementary school and this can be said about very few bands for me, Zeppelin being the only band that comes quickly to mind. I haven’t seen them live but I hope to and I hope Kim comes back. Long live the Pixies!

This has always been high on my list of favorite Pixies jams. I love the “Buy me a soda” lyrics, even though it sounds like it has to do with a hands preacher when I read the song’s lyrics as a whole. What I’d do to be able to go back to 1987 and see them in their prime.

Lou Reed takes the Cosmic Walk on the Wild Side.

Probably my first introduction was a cover of this song by Perry Farrell’s band Porno for Pyros on the Cable Guy soundtrack. Weird movie, but a great cover.

In addendum to my brother’s post, we say goodbye and remember the great Lou Reed this week as he passes on to the next world.  I think I have spent a bit more time with Lou then my brother, specifically though the music of the Velvet Underground and his solo album Transformer. He will be remembered as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century and one of the best lyricists ever. Brian Eno said once that only thirty thousand copies of the first Velvet Underground were sold but everyone who bought a copy started a band. This means a whole lot more to me than Billboard charts and Grammy awards.

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On the Radio: This Lorde chick is crazy

I heard this on the radio. She’s from New Zealand and is like 17.  Keep reading.

I am back landscaping and using my little FM radio which is still plugging away after two solid seasons of use.  From years of part time landscaping/glorified gardening, I can say this is a rare thing and I commend the folks at Sony for making a durable radio that I am probably the last person to use (at least in the developed world). But I digress. The normal alternative station is pumping out a lot of Linkin’ Park and Passion Pit lately, two bands I really can’t stand. Thus, I have been switching to the adult alternative station which is often long on hippie talk and short on music, but I heard the above song today and was blown away.

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What You Were (Not): Fugazi

“You’ve got your hands over your ears / you’ve got your mouth running on / you’ve got your eyes looking for something / that will never be found” from “Give Me the Cure”

When I was in high school in the overwhelmingly white backwoods region the Family J calls home, learning about music (outside of the few stations we could receive clearly which included double doses of top 40’s, easy listening, Oldies, Country and Classic Rock) was a task that both challenged and defined. Classic Rock came with acid washed jeans and cigarette smoking in elementary school. Country blared from pick-up trucks with gun racks. Most high school students were wired into MTV and/or Rick Dees’ weekly top 40.

Some of us tried to define ourselves against these stand-bys by gravitating towards the obscure (or not).  Why we did this is hard to explain without humility and self-deprecation. The choice to be ‘different’ is made for many reasons—some have it made for them, some accept it as a confirmation of long-felt dislocation, and others (probably me) embrace it because it is attractive. The mundane everydayness of the ‘mainstream’ pales in comparison to the drama of alienation, otherness, and imagined persecution.

So, in the days before the internet, when ‘alternative’ music began to seep into the top 40 and received heavy play on MTV, the new arms race of self-identification centered around obscurity. To be different one had to possess a musical sensibility and style that was unreplicated and that was, even if impossible so, ‘original’. For musical taste, the obscurity aesthetic is a bit of a paradox. Like conforming to non-conformism, espousing an exclusive taste in the obscure is a bit of a shell game. And here’s why: the pose of the obscurist also entails claiming superiority of product over the more popular examples. It is thus not obscurity that is highlighted but the excellence of the ‘original’ individual’s taste (and this works for most art forms as well as palette and eye).

For some, these poses came easier than others. Geography gave some a regular stream of instruction from a local college radio station. Others benefited from older siblings who initiated them into the mysteries of the underground. And, even others were industrious and daring—sneaking out to small gigs in near-by towns, scouring music magazines and hanging out at record stores. I, on the other hand, was the oldest, out in the sticks, with a mother who listened to Neil Diamond and a deaf father. I have an interview I did when I was in elementary school. I listed the Monkees as my favorite band. I liked Weird Al before a significant (and persistent) They Might Be Giants obsession. I was not, by any means, cool.

But that did not keep me from trying to play the game. The band that I advertised to others as the token of my ‘otherness’ and excellence in my darkest poseurship was Fugazi. You couldn’t find Fugazi on the radio or on MTV. Most music stores in the area did not sell Fugazi albums. This band was the ultimate for the bluffer’s pose. I had learned about Fugazi from an older artist-friend who was the epitome of an underground music connoisseur. (He made Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume look like a two-bit hack.) As I learned later, much of his pronouncements were also poses—they were just better than, cleverer than, and most important of all, prior to mine.

Fugazi’s  DIY ethic, anti-capitalist rhetoric and belligerence towards record companies made it, at least in theory, a perfect band for a quasi-idealistic non-conformist during the swan-song of hair bands and at the dawning of neutered rap and hip-hop (before suburban white kids were listening to Gansta Rap). Fugazi, as I learned, wouldn’t market through merchandise (hence the “This is not a Fugazi T-Shirt” t-shirt), charged an egalitarian 5 dollars for all shows and an affordable 5/8 dollars for each album.

Was I never this 'cool'?

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