[GUEST POST] Return of the Pixies
I’m a massive Pixies fan. Superlatives abound when people describe their favourite bands, but the Pixies really were completely unlike anything that has been heard before or since - redefining music, inventing a genre and inspiring your favourite bands. They released five insanely good albums in the time it takes Axl Rose to decide on a pizza topping, and then imploded as they stood on the edge of greatness.
For a while, the faithful were content with Kim and Frank’s divergent solo careers. But there was always hope… I remember seeing Frank Black and the Catholics in Vancouver, when they casually dropped the bassline for Gouge Away and we all looked at each other, open mouthed, as Frank unleashed that otherworldly roar. From the crowd’s reaction, it was only a matter of time before the Pixies had to get back together.
The first reunion gigs, when still-youngish original fans like myself rubbed shoulders with teenagers turned onto the Pixies by the reverence of bands like Radiohead and Nirvana, were electric. Like religious experiences. I went to as many as I could, and they were the best gigs I’ve ever been to. When a 2013 tour was announced, I got tickets for Glasgow and London.
But 2013 finds the Pixies at a pivotal moment. They’ve recorded some new songs, which haven’t been well received. Live, they’re on the verge of becoming a nostalgia act, trotting out the hits for appreciative forty-somethings. Most earth-shaking of all, Kim walked out on the band half way through recording the new material.
The heart of the Pixies music has always been the battle between Kim’s precocious, propulsive basslines and angelic voice against Francis’ power chords and screaming, an echo of the personal friction that first tore the band apart. With Kim gone, would they still kick ass?
Well the capacity crowd at Glasgow’s Barrowlands certainly thought so as the Pixies walked on to loud and fervent adulation. Kim Shattuck, in the unenviable position of filling the most loved boots in rock music, looks the part, tall, skinny, stylish and wearing a Peter Pan dress that gives her the air of a sexy Mennonite preacher’s wife.
Age has left them bald, but hasn’t withered them. Frank is still chunky and folds his face like a man in pain when he unleashes that unholy scream. David’s monkey-limbed drumming is still as sharp and dynamic as ever, however knackered he looked after two hours driving the band’s relentless pace. Joey has been working out and his squalling guitar veers between perfect surf-pop and unnerving, yelping scribbles as effortlessly as ever.
They kick out the jams one after the other, no stopping to chat or even to let applause subside. And with a back catalogue this big, you can understand why. At the Apollo, they play for over two hours. The set is heavy on Come On Pilgrim, Surfer Rosa and Doolittle, with hardly anything from Bossanova and a few from Trompe Le Monde. It all sounds BRILLIANT. The older stuff, thin and scratchy on record, sounds beefier and rockier live. Despite the obvious ‘maturity’ of some fans, the crowd greet each song with uninhibited joy, screaming, fist pumping and moshing.
I may have got a few wrong and they played a different set in a different order each night but I’m sure I heard Ed Is Dead, Nimrod Son, Levitate Me, Hey, Here Comes Your Man, La La Love You, River Euphrates, Cactus, Caribou, Where Is My Mind, Tony’s Theme, Debaser, Planet Of Sound, The Sad Punk, Ana, Isla De Encanta, Bone Machine, Broken Face, Something Against You, Break My Body, Brick Is Red, Distance Equals Rate Times Time, Tame and Crackity Jones – all cranked out with a brutal efficiency.
When they get to Vamos, they let up and have some fun. Joey plays a hugely extended solo to a rapturous reception. Perhaps ‘play’ is talking it up a little – he turns his guitar into a Jesus and Mary Chain style wall of feedback, at one point ‘playing’ the on/off switch, at another point unplugging the guitar and sticking the plug in his mouth. The crowd love it.
A symptom of Kim’s absence was the absence of Gigantic, but I never rated it anyway. For me, a more glaring omission was No. 13 Baby, the Pixies defining tune with its impelling rhythm, biblical images, sexual tension and cathartic screaming released effortlessly, a sledgehammer wielded like a feather.
They gamely play their new material. Where on previous tours the opening atmospheric bars of In Heaven have segued into Where Is My Mind, they now segue into Andro Queen, and the comparison is not flattering. The new material hasn’t been well received. A free download “Bagboy” did bode well – tight, angular, rhythmic, unlike anything the band had done before, but unmistakably Pixies – but the EP that followed confirmed everyone’s worst nightmare. It sounded like Frank Black b-sides. Dull, turgid, dated – could be any early 90s garage rock indie band.
In fairness, the new stuff does sound better live, although meets with a muted response. And another new song which goes “Check the Record” is as rhythmically dynamic as Bagboy. Damn. I’ve just googled it and apparently it’s a cover of The Fall’s “New Big Prinz”. Well, it was a good cover. Another cover, of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Head On (from Trompe Le Monde), also smashes.
UMass and Gouge Away, great on record, are religious experiences live, and played back to back at the Apollo in a joyous slab of balls out screaming rock and roll. Incredible. The gig would be worth it for this seven minutes of perfection alone – coming in the middle of an incendiary 2+ hours of all killer, very little (new) filler, it’s a gift. It may be a different story in the studio, but live, there is still no band that can touch them. Even without Kim.
Written by Leo Kearse