Album cover courtesy of the Pixies
Review by Max Luebbers
Upon first hearing the Pixies latest record, Head Carrier, it was unclear whether the vaguely unpleasant malaise that washed over me was just the ‘Frank Black Effect’, or rather the feeling that this is all just a little too familiar. Head Carrier marks the Boston Proto-grunger’s second release since their reunion in 2004, and sixth full-length studio album. The reunion has become an unlikely success, bringing the band - once unheard of by the mainstream consumer - into the forefront of alt-rock consciousness, with help from the inclusion of “Where is My Mind” in the film Fight Club’s Soundtrack.
It seems as though consistent touring and one record post-regroup (2014’s Indie Cindy) has given frontman Frank Black (AKA Black Francis) and crew a little more cash to splurge on a modern studio. But with the new sleek finish, gone are rusty, unsettling undertones that made the Pixies’ sound so iconic and influential in the first place. Of course, the basic song structure is still there - to a degree. The best of tracks on Head Carrier either waver unpredictably, going from loud to quiet on a whim (“Tenement Song”), or remain savage and wild all the way through their characteristically short run times (“Baal’s Back”). However, along with the good comes the slew of the generic alt-rock drivel that plagued Indy Cindy. It leaves me thinking that the notoriously headstrong Black had maybe a little too much say in the album’s production.
During their prime in the early 90’s, the Pixies’ crafted a nightmarish, twisted version of 50’s and 60’s classics like Buddy Holly and The Beatles. The simple song structure belied a lyrical complexity and artistic vision that would influence an entire generation of rock. The results were demented tales of sex, religion, and violence, and an overall apathy for the world, with each song being a distorted biblical tale, filled to the brim with strange imagery and symbolism. That’s not to say the Pixies in their prime couldn't craft an excellent pop-rock song; “Here Comes Your Man,” one of their most popular tracks, is accessible enough to occasionally hear at the mall, but the trained listener will be able to catch the cynicism behind seemingly trite lyrics.
One of the things that made the Pixies so compelling in the early 90’s was the tension built by erratic dynamics, heavy distortion, and the back-mic’d shrieking of Francis’s and bassist Kim Deal’s vocal performances. Beyond the songwriting and instrumentation, the unusual mixing was equally noticeable. Each instrument is equalized to the extreme: guitars are tinny, with all of the low frequencies rolled-off, and Kim Deal’s bass thumps aggressively, the simple beats driving the rhythm along. The tension builds and resolves multiple times in a 2 or 3 minute song, leaving the listener without time to catch a break between the onslaught of noise.
On Head Carrier, a majority of their songs have a new poppy sheen to them. And while the writing is similar to earlier work on a surface level, gone are the erratic space-cult ballads from records like Doolittle and Bossanova. The mid-level frequencies have made an unwelcome appearance and the effect is detrimental to Head Carrier as a whole. Instead of separating the guitar, vocals, drums, and bass as far as is sonically possible, each instrument feeds off the others. The effect is a richer sound but a stark departure from the iconic tone on earlier albums. Gone is their unsettling air, and gone is the subversive tone, and in its place is a sleek new coat of ‘auditory paint’ and only a superficial understanding of what made the original 4 albums so memorable. The clouds aren't so wild, and the quiets aren't so sinister.
Head Carrier truthfully delivers some great alt-rock songs (“Bel Esprit” and “Oona" are especially memorable) and the album is certainly not bad by any means, just underwhelming. On earlier records, the Pixies fed off the relentless momentum of each song, yet Head Carrier is inconsistent enough to feel like a lesser rehash of all your favorites. It's sad, but I can't help but think the days of Pixies 2.0 are drawing to a close, and whatever the group did accomplish on the record will soon be forgotten in favor of the savage and wild Pixies of old.