It’s funny that after a band splits up and potentially will not make any more music, they are made into gods, and worshipped and mourned. Their original albums become almost legendary, bordering on attaining a mythological status, and are played endlessly becoming more beloved with each passing year… and then two decades go by and a new album is recorded.
That album receives poor reviews generally, as did the follow up two years later, with comments mainly focussing on the fact that high (almost impossible) expectations were never met… also some were unhappy that it didn’t sound enough like the band, and others that it was trying too hard to sound like the band. Fans were disappointed that these gods were just musicians… who’d have thought?
Now this is an over-simplified overview of the Pixies’ rise and fall and rise, but it is important to remember this in light of their new album released on Friday 13 September and their world tour coming to the UK that week. I often think that Pixies’ albums are not immediately accessible, and therefore initial reactions to them are somewhat muted. I know that sometimes the melodies and hooks woven into their songs are not obvious, but they bury themselves deep in your brain without you knowing, and I find myself humming them and wondering what are these earworms? Then returning to the album and feeling like I’m listening to an old friend.
It is no different with the Pixies’ latest recording ‘Beneath The Eyrie’, and knowing this I played it dozens of times, sometimes as just background and then again with headphones, then in the car, then on the stereo full blast. Multiple plays really does pay off because there is subtlety in this work, which requires more of your attention than a standard repetitious pop song that, let’s face it, becomes irritating and tedious after a few listens.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that ‘Beneath The Eyrie’ is hard work, if anything it is light and breezy, dynamic and melodic, raw and exciting… but not obviously so. It sounds like a Pixies album, absolutely, but not in a way that makes you think they are making a deliberate attempt to please fans. It just feels like a natural progression of Black Francis’ songwriting. And frankly I believe he hasn’t written a bad song, even during his solo years when everyone else considered his work substandard.
Opening song ‘In The Arms Of Mrs. Mark Of Cain’ is a muted beginning having what sounds like a drum machine loop in place of the usual dynamic playing from David Lovering; either that or he is playing very conservatively here. That does change immediately with the song released as a single ‘Graveyard Hill’ and more so on ‘Catfish Kate’ featuring a stunning melodic hook that is echoed gloriously on Santiago’s raw guitar. Apart from the lead guitar breaks and Paz Lenchantin’s backing vocals the first part of the album could be mistaken for a Frank Black album, and then in the middle of ‘Silver Bullet’ things really kick in hard and it feels like the band are finding their magic. ‘Long Rider’ is also vintage Pixies containing their signature use of loud/quiet stop/start arrangements that have been used by almost every indie band since 1987.
Paz Lenchantin again provides intelligently thought out bass-lines, stunning backing vocals throughout and lead voice in surf-epic ‘Los Surfers Muertos’, which also highlights Joey’s skill with a tremolo effect pedal.
Black Francis screams deliciously through ‘St Nazaire’ and gets all alt-country in ‘Bird of Prey’ with the ‘alt’ provided by a stunning guitar solo by Joey. There’s a low key finish to the album with ‘Death Horizon’ that conjures up the days when Frank played with his Catholics – I’m sure this won’t please those Pixies fans who abandoned him during that period. With such a muted ending though it doesn’t inspire a first time listener to reach for the play button again.
Production is again by Tom Dalgety and he adeptly gives the band a tonne of space to play in. He manages to make the four piece sound tight, loud and powerfully soft. The arrangements are always based around the concept of less is more, so you will find a sound that can be perfectly recreated live – no multiple layers of guitars or synths, just a guitar on the left for Joey, and right for Francis, bass and drums. When their instrument is not needed, it isn’t played. Such a simple idea, but one that needs the utmost confidence and skill to pull off.
The promotional tour begins in the UK this week and if the Pixies’ last tour is anything to go by, they will seek to highlight this new album (nine of the twelve songs from ‘Head Carrier’ were played in 2016), so be prepared to hear tracks you don’t know. Although saying that the setlist did include 32 songs, and I didn’t see many disappointed faces that night – the Pixies are still a powerful force live, even if their current recorded work mis-fires slightly. But the thing is of course, a band like the Pixies cannot compete with their own track record, I just think it is better that they are still actively producing new work, because I know that in a few years this album will be resonating as distinctly as their early albums….. it does take time, and yes, effort is required by the listener.
The album is released on Friday 13 September, in a clearly intentional move, as if the unluckiest day in the calendar will somehow perversely affect the sales. People sometimes miss how much humour is in the Pixies’ work; it’s a part of what makes it great.
Reviewer: Alan Neilson