The reforming of a band as storied as The Pixies after a hiatus of over 23 years was a daunting challenge; each of the returning members had to have a certain amount of stones to even consider releasing a new studio album. That is exactly what the Pixies did in 2014 with their release Indie Cindy. The effort was met with mixed responses. Critics were split between those who wanted unmodified tunes exactly like The Pixies early works and those who were more open to the newer tracks that drew from the past but also conveyed the maturity and wisdom that time had bestowed on the band members.
Additionally there were those who could not square the loss of bassist Kim Deal and accept new music from the Pixies without her. Where ever fans and critics fell on the scale of opinion on “Indie Cindy”, The Pixies are unbowed and two years later are releasing their latest album Head Carrier on September 30th. “Head Carrier” the band’s sixth release is an impressive album that is an amalgam of fabulous familiar sonics and refreshing original approaches that prove old dogs can learn new tricks.
Returning for this go round are frontman/guitarist Black Francis, lead guitarist Joey Santiago, David Lovering as ever performing magic on the drums, and now permanent member Paz Lenchantin on bass and vocals replacing the estimable Kim Deal. “Head Carrier” was recorded at RAC studios in London, UK, with Tom Dalgety as producer replacing Gil Norton who had produced the last four Pixies albums. The band has always kept things grounded no matter the accolades tossed at them throughout the years. They continue to project the paradox of average looking folks who make otherworldly music while looking like the roadies and not band members. This paradox stands out even more as three of the original members enter their fifties looking more like dads than rockers who continue to make madly addictive music. Francis has stated that the purpose of Head Carrier “was for the listener to be able to remove themselves from the narratives they might have heard about the band.” I have to say they have done a pretty good job accomplishing that purpose this go round.
As an unrepentant fan of The Pixies since their first incarnation, I am always a bit fearful that this it the time The Pixies will disappoint, but rest assured this outing is stellar. The release kicks off with the title tune, Head Carrier which is best described as a cacophonic arse kicking guitar attack. The song has many of the trademarks of prior Pixies endeavors, but is conveyed with a fearlessness that comes with maturity. The track sounds like music making has again become fun for each of the band members. “Head Carrier” shows that the band is aging beautifully. Classic Masher contains a wry wink to the past making jest of hipsters and audiosnobs who have naysayed the band from the beginning. This song displays that the band have moved beyond the petty quibbling of music critics to make music the way they want; producing another winning track.
Baal’s Back certainly makes it mark in the brief time it unreels. Here Black Francis reaches back to the chaotic aggression of “Surfer Rosa” and more specifically Something Against You having another primal scream moment. Joey Santiago lets loose some fantastic rapier sharp guitar riffs in what is an updated thrashing mosh tune.
It is on Might As Well Be Gone that Paz Lenchantin can be fully appreciated in her relatively new position. The lovely counterbalance of Francis’ vocal with Lenchantin’s vocal echoes the brilliant back and forth Francis had with Deal. That interplay works so well between Francis and Lenchantin you could almost forget Kim. The song itself takes on the attitude The Pixies faced as they made their comeback. As a whole the industry and critics at the time suggested that the band’s heyday was long over and questioning why they would bother to reconvene for any other purpose than to just make money. Those individuals concluded that the Pixies might as well stay dead and buried. With this track the band collectively flashes a certain finger at their critics. The band’s attitude is best expressed in the song with their disregard of the sniping and continuing forward.
The garage rock flavored tune Oona is a selection that is loaded with great blarry guitar. The song is another toe tapper with the trademark off kilter lyrics Francis is famous for creating. One of the strongest songs on the release is Talent which is a wry clever tune loaded with a barrel arsed guitar that displays that Joey Santiago is one of the most woefully underappreciated guitarists in rock music. The song takes on all the agents and label executives who blow smoke. They promise miracles of fame and fortune if you only sell your soul to them. The situation is perfectly captured in the wry lyrics like, “He’s a major talent and I want get through to you and help you find your talent.” The song is insistent and energy filled conveying a splendid garage band feel. Also excellent is the tongue in cheek final lyric, “What a waste of talent” as you practically hear Francis rolling his eyes.
“Talent” sets up the fantastic Tenement Song which I can’t get enough of; this song is hook laden and a perfect illustration of what The Pixies do best. It had a grinding guitar and outstanding back and forth between Francis and Lenchantin. On the track Lenchantin offers the ying to Francis’ yang making for a delightful balance in this and other songs throughout the album. Also not to be forgotten is the interplay of Santiago on guitar with Lovering just nailing it on drums with an oscillation that makes for a spectacular track. You can hear the fun they had recording this song which makes it something special. Bel Esprit is an off the cuff whimsical number with a daliesque surreal narrative and is again totally enjoyable. Of special note is the next track, All I Think about Now which is an attempt by Lenchantin to address the elephant in the room; which is the ghost of Kim Deal. Deal’s departure has haunted the band since she officially left in 2013. Lenchantin thanks Kim for the lessons and opportunities she has given her. The song was co written by Lenchantin and is bittersweet in tone. Lenchantin does a great job on the vocals and hits the sentiment just right with lyrics like, “I try to think about tomorrow but I always think about the past.” I don’t think the baggage that the band has with Kim Deal’s departure will ever completely go away but I do admire the band not flinching and dealing with the situation in an apt and touching manner.
The song that will blast away fans in concert will be Um Chagga Lagga, this is a great song and a classic in the making live. It has everything that makes for a great Pixies tune. It has boundless energy and a moshing nonsensicalness in the lyrics as it demands you get your butt moving. Joey again amazes with great riffs, showing a frenzied energy that younger bands only wish they could muster. Meanwhile Francis ever paranoid lays down the lyrical challenge “they are coming to get me.” Plaster of Paris changes things up with a tune filled with a Johnny Marr/Smiths guitar treatment which is straightforwardly married to Pixies trademark quirkiness. This song grows with repeated listens. All the Saints is the finishing touch to an excellent album. The lyrics convey a bittersweet rumination about the loss of icons and trailblazers that have gone from our world, apt when considering how many musical leading lights we have lost this year. Francis ponders when his turn will come and is thankful he has the opportunity to still practice his craft. The quivery guitars on the accompaniment evince an arid western desert atmosphere that reminds me of “Silver” off of “Doolittle”.
Head Carrier is proof that The Pixies still have noteworthy chapters to add to their discography. The album portrays an eclectic band that has mellowed and become more comfortable in their skin. That is quite an accomplishment for a band renown for never seemed to be comfortable with their persona. With their return to the music scene they have been caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Many fans and critics want the same Pixies of the past but then blast them for utilizing trademark sounds saying they haven’t progressed. To those individuals I say paraphrasing the sage from Fast Times at Ridgemont High Jeff Spicoli,” Make up your mind dude, do you want cookie cutter Pixies or what the Pixies currently do best?”. Each fan has to answer that question for themselves but in the end “Head Carrier” is an impressive release about which true Pixies fans will wax rhapsodic.